When we say someone is shrewd, we are saying that they are clever, astute, and exhibit a practical intelligence and insight, but this was not always so. Some seven hundred years ago, a shrewd person was an evil or malicious one.
The adjective schreued appears around the year 1300 and was first applied to wicked people, malicious acts, unruly children, and ill-behaved animals. An early use can be found in the version of the romance Bevis of Hampton found in the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1):
Þar was a Lombard in þe toun þat was scherewed & feloun.
(There was a Lombard in the town who was shrewd and wicked.)
The adjective comes from the noun shreue, the same as our modern shrew, which in turn comes from the Old English screawa. The adjective shrewd is one of a number of such adjectives based on animals. Both crabbed and dogged date from about the same time. Some species of shrew are venomous, and in the Middle Ages the characteristic led to associating the small animal with evil things. The entry for the word in Thomas Elyot’s 1542 Latin Dictionary, the Bibliotheca Eliotæ, expresses this belief:
Mus Arancus, a kynde of myse called a shrew, whyche yf it goo ouer a beastes backe, he shall be lame in the chyne [i.e., spine].
(Mus arancus is not the modern taxonomic classification of the shrew. Shrews are not rodents and not in the genus Mus, or mouse, but rather the common or Eurasian shrew is Sorex araneus.)
Similarly, an evil or villainous persons could be called a shreue. Line 287 of the thirteenth century poem The Owl and the Nightingale reads:
Ne lust me wit þe screwen chide.
(I do not wish to argue with scoundrels.)
By the end of the fourteenth century, shrewd was also being used to describe a person, especially a woman, who was a scold or a nag, as in the title of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. In his epilogue to The Merchant’s Tale, written around 1395, Geoffrey Chaucer has the host say (IV (E), 2427–28):
I have a wyf, though that she povre be,
But of hir tonge, a labbyng shrewe is she.
(I have a wife, though she poor be,
But in her tongue, a blabbing shrew is she.)
The modern sense of shrewd meaning “clever” did not appear until the first part of the sixteenth century, and then it still retained something of an unsavory connotation. This sense’s first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, from some time before 1520, is “serpently shrewd.” But over time it lost the negative connotation and now being shrewd is a positive attribute.
“shrewed, adj.,” “shrew, n.1,” “shrew, n.2,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“shreued (adj.),” Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton