The Grammarphobia Blog

The long and the short of shrift

Q: Is there any other kind of shrift than a short shrift?

A: The short answer is yes. But this question deserves a longer answer.

The word “shrift” is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. It was spelled scrift in Old English and meant a penance imposed by a priest after confession. So someone would take shrift or do shrift or give shrift.

The noun “shrift” is derived from an even older word, the verb “shrive,” meaning to hear confession, impose penance, or give absolution. The verb, spelled scrifan in Old English, dates back to around 776, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although the original meaning of “shrift” is considered archaic today, the OED has published references from as recently as the late 19th century for the word used in the sense of penance or confession. An 1880 translation of Goethe’s Faust, for example, mentions going “to shrift with nothing to disclose.”

As for “short shrift,” the expression originally referred to the brief period of time that a prisoner was allowed for confession before being executed.

The phrase first appears in Shakespeare’s Richard III (1594), when Lord Hastings is sentenced to be beheaded and told: “Make a short Shrift, as he longs to see your Head.”

By the 19th century, the phrase “short shrift” was being used in the sense of making short work of something or giving it little consideration.

In 1887, for example, the Times of London criticized a measure before Parliament and said “it is to be hoped that the House of Commons will give it short shrift to-night.”

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