Wednesday, July 18, 2012

short shrift

I actually use this phrase more often than you'd think. Not so much in speech but in writing. There's an example tucked in here, apparently. I think it's probably because I tend to breeze through things and only later realize that I haven't given them the consideration that is their due. In any case, I seem to throw it into writing fairly often.

Of course, I haven't ever really stopped to consider what the term means in itself or where it comes from. I usually just mean that I didn't give something a lot of attention or understand its importance. But when I stopped to think about the phrase, I didn't really know what I was saying. I imagined that "shrift" was something like "scrip", that fake money circulated when more normal currency systems won't or don't work. I was wrong. Sort of.


I bet if I asked you where the term "short shrift" came into the language, you could get it right. I mean, if you guess the Bard in these kinds of situations, you hardly ever turn out to be wrong. Whether he coined the phrase or just the first to put it into writing, Shakespeare gets a lot of credit for its continued existence. Here's the quote, from Richard III:

Dispatch, my lord; the duke would be at dinner:
Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.

It's pretty obvious that this is execution talk, but what's the shrift aspect. When I'm not thinking shrift has to do with scrip, I'm thinking it has something to do with shrouds. But no.

According to this site, shrift come from shrive, and is the penance asked by a priest in order to obtain absolution. When convicts were sentenced to death and sent immediately to their deaths, they only had time to make a short shrift, which is definitely the sense in the play.  

The Council in the Tower

 As the site mentioned says, it took a long time for the phrase to be written down again, by none other than Sir Walter Scott. but this wasn't until 1814, in his poem, Lord of the Isles, which told of the wanderings of Robert the Bruce. The above site conjectures that because the phrase has so little usage, it probably wasn't in common usage in Shakespeare's times so he probably coined it.

I find it interesting that in becoming more general in its meaning, the phrase has actually become quite hearty. People generally know what it means to give something short shrift, even if they don't know that its basically gallows talk.

The verb that shrift derives from is "shrive" and shrive not only means to hear confession and absolve someone of sins, it means to  assign,decree, impose penance, and comes from West Germanic *skriban, apparently one of those hypothesized languages. Anyway, it connects all those words that have something to do with writing, like scribe and script and, well, yes...scrip.

Heres a link to a beautiful old volume of The Lord of the Isles.


  1. I'll have to brush up my Shakespeare. I knew about shrift and shriving but not the origin of short shrift. That make short shrift a mordantly humorous expression.

  2. It's interesting that we use it, but it's lost its confessional traces entirely.

  3. But not surprising. The one amusing usage I've run into recently describes the autobiographical basis of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," which tells of the composer's efforts to free himself from his obsession with a woman. "When that elaborate shriving didn't work," the commentator wrote, "he married her instead."

  4. I'm wondering now how shriving might relate to skiving off.

  5. And I wonder what shriving might have to do with writing.

  6. well that kinda gives heed to my running definition of the word..i like it!
    I also like how this word is a close relative of scrip, script and even shear which has its roots in the Old English 'sker' which meant to cut or scratch (presumably into a tablet or piece of wood (because pens werent invented yet hahaha))..oh my everytime i read one of your posts i fly away and get lost in looking at the etymology of a word and end up not making much sense hehe
    terrific post!

  7. Glad to know that someone else is as seduced by tangents in the word jungle as I am, Dan.

  8. Love this! And all the stuff that comes after it. I was thinking short prayer, so I'm glad I was close!

  9. A heck of a lot closer than I was, Kathleen.