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shameless pleading


Beat the reaper.

Dear Word Detective: I have a question, the answer to which I hope you won’t give short shrift. What’s a “shrift”? — Jack Pounds.

That’s a good question. I often say that because a reader has asked about a word or phrase that I find particularly interesting or one that proves especially challenging to research, so my judgment of “good question” is a bit subjective. But this question must objectively be a good question, because people ask it about once a year. So I wait a decade or so and play it again, Sam. Yes, I know Bogey never really said it, but your name isn’t Sam, so we’re even.

I just plugged “short shrift” into Google News, which found 516 results, many in headlines ranging from “Sport gets short shrift from the great and good” (Irish Times) to “Seniors given short shrift” (Ottawa Citizen) to “Is My Child Getting the ‘Short Shrift?'” (Technorati). The allure of “short shrift” for headline writers is no doubt its brevity; the Merriam-Webster definition of the phrase, “little or no attention or consideration,” takes up way too much space and lacks that snappy alliteration.

As a fixed phrase or idiom, “short shrift” dates back to the late 16th century, when William Shakespeare apparently coined it in his play Richard III. The noun “shrift” is based on the verb “to shrive,” and both words are derived from the Old English verb “scrifan,” which was derived from the Latin verb “scribere,” meaning “to write” (also the source of “scribe,” “script,” etc.).

While “scribere” produced a lot of words in English and other languages meaning “to write” in various senses, “scrifan” and its modern descendant “shrive” originally had the very specific religious meaning of “to hear the confession of a penitent, prescribe penance (presumably in writing), and grant absolution.” The noun “shrift” has meant, at various points, all these stages of the process: the confession, the sentence of penance, and the absolution. This sense of “confession and absolution” persists in Shrove Tuesday (“shrove” being the past tense of “shrive”), the day before Ash Wednesday in the Christian religious calendar, which is traditionally an occasion of confession and absolution.

By Shakespeare’s time, the meaning of “shrift” had settled on “the opportunity to confess and be absolved of sin before a sentence is carried out,” most often a death sentence. Thus in Richard III, Lord Hastings, about to be beheaded on Richard’s orders, is told “Make a short Shrift, he longs to see your Head” (meaning that Hasting should make his confession quick because the King is impatient for the execution). While Shakespeare may have been the first to use “short shrift” in print, the phrase did not, apparently, become an immediate popular hit. In fact it dropped out of sight in the written record for more than two centuries, and the next printed occurrence that we know of popped up in the early 19th century, when it was used in two novels by Sir Walter Scott.

Both Scott and subsequent 19th century authors used the phrase in the original “last words” sense, and it wasn’t until the 1880s that our modern, less grisly sense of “brief and superficial consideration” emerged (“Every argument … tells with still greater force against the present measure, and it is to be hoped that the House of Commons will give it short shrift to-night,” 1887). This “quick once-over” sense of “shrift” is now the only sense of the word in common usage, and “shrift” is almost never seen outside the fixed phrase “short shrift.”

The phrase “make short shrift of” is also common, and means simply “to get something done or resolved quickly” in a more neutral sense (“Bob finally gave up and called a plumber, who made short shrift of the problem.”).

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