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Short shrift

Q From Anne in Seattle: I am wondering about where the term short shrift came from?

A Do you know the scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III of 1594 in which Lord Hastings is condemned by Richard to be taken out at once and beheaded? Richard Ratcliffe says to Hastings, “Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.” That’s the first known use of the phrase in English.

What’s odd about it is that it then doesn’t appear again until Sir Walter Scott’s poetic romance, The Lord of the Isles in 1815: “Short were his shrift in that debate”. After that, it quickly becomes a standard idiom in the language with the sense first of a brief respite, then of giving a matter brief and unsympathetic attention, especially in the phrase to give short shrift to somebody or something. Scott likely extracted the phrase from Shakespeare’s play — he loved using archaisms. He was so influential in the early nineteenth century that he was probably single-handedly responsible for making it popular.

Shakespeare’s meaning for shrift would have been immediately known to his audience. It’s from the verb shrive, the act of confessing to a priest followed by penance and absolution. So, when Ratcliffe was telling Hastings “to make a short shrift” he was telling him to be quick about his confession because Richard wanted him dead as soon as possible.

Shrive is itself a strange word, since its source is the Latin scriptum, letters or writing, from which we get words such as script. The modern German verb schreiben, to write, comes from the same source, as do similar terms in other European languages. For some reason we don’t understand, the verb schrive took on a special sense in the Old English and Scandinavian languages of imposing a penalty, perhaps from the idea of making a written decree. This led to the specific religious meaning and eventually to an idiom for brushing somebody’s concerns aside unfeelingly. Such are the oddities of language evolution.

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Page created 07 Feb 2004