short shrift

What is a shrift? And why is it short? Shrift is an Old English word meaning penance. The phrase short shrift originally referred to the brief, perfunctory period given to a condemned prisoner to confess his sins prior to execution. It has come to idiomatically mean to quickly dispose of a matter or dismiss something out of hand.

Shrift appears c.1050 in the Laws of Canute:

Ægþer man sceal ge on godcundan scriftan ge on woruldcundan doman þas þingc tosceadan.
(One owes both divine penance and secular punishment these things are separate.)

Shrift is from the verb to shrive, meaning to hear confession, impose penance, and give absolution. This verb is also the source of Shrove Tuesday, the day of Mardi Gras, where people make the best of things before being shriven for Lent.

It is also related the German and Dutch Schrift, meaning writing. Ultimately all these words come from the Latin scribere meaning to write. Theologians viewed confession and penance as a prescription from God, something that is commanded or metaphorically “written.” The writing sense of the Latin, however, was never borrowed into English or the Scandinavian languages as it was into the German and Dutch.

The phrase short shrift first appears in Shakespeare’s 1594 Richard III (Act III, Scene iv) where it is used quite literally:

Make a short Shrift, he longs to see your Head

But like many Shakespearean allusions, the phrase does not really build up a head of steam until the 19th century, when it begins to be used metaphorically. Walter Scott uses it in his 1814 Lord of the Isles:

Short were his shrift in that debate...If Lorn encounter’d Bruce!

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition)

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