The Grammarphobia Blog

Making shift

Q: Can you explain the word “makeshift”? The parts don’t add up to what it brings to mind—improvised or cobbled together.

A: The word no longer makes literal sense because the noun “shift” has shifted its meaning. Once upon a time, a “shift” was a substitution, and to “make a shift” was to make do with a lesser substitute.

The noun is related to the verb “shift” (circa 1000), which originally meant to put in order or arrange, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The verb came from ancient Germanic and was written as sciftan in Old English.

By the early 1300s, this verb was used to mean “to change, to replace by another of the kind,” the OED says. And in the 1600s, “to shift with (or without)” meant “to manage with something inferior or without something desirable.”

Meanwhile, the noun had been developing along the same lines. By the early 1500s, it was being used to mean “an expedient, an ingenious device for effecting some purpose,” Oxford says, and later in the century it meant a substitution.

Consequently, “for a shift” (first recorded in 1523) meant “for want of something better”; and “by the shift” (1665) meant “at a pinch,” Oxford explains.

Similarly, to “make a shift” or “make shift” simply meant to make efforts, try all means, contrive, or succeed with difficulty. And by the 1570s, the OED says, the phrase (followed by “with”) also meant “to do one’s best with (inferior means), to be content with, put up with.”

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest use of the verb phrase in that sense.

“The bread is very drye … but the common people remediyng that with Larde or Oyle, doo make a shift with it as wel as they can.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of a Latin treatise on farming, by Conrad Heresbach.)

The dictionary’s next example is from Ben Jonson’s comedy The New Inne (1661): “Thou must make shift with it.”

The verb phrase “make shift” survived into the late 19th century, as in this OED example from a monthly trade journal, The Bookseller (1885): “We cannot afford to employ … efficient assistants but have to make shift with cheap labour.”

This brings us to the 17th-century adjective “makeshift” and its younger cousin, the 19th-century noun.

The OED’s earliest written use of the adjective refers to an outdated printing press: “A make-shift slovenly contrivance.” (From the second volume of Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, 1683.)

This is Oxford’s definition of the adjective: “Of the nature of a makeshift; serving as a temporary substitute, esp. of an inferior kind; improvised; formed haphazardly.”

The dictionary’s earliest written use of the noun is from an essay by Charles Lamb in the September 1822 issue of the London Magazine: “The cottage (a sorry antediluvian make-shift of a building).”

Here’s the OED definition of the noun: “That with which one makes shift; a temporary substitute, esp. of an inferior kind, an expedient.”

The definitions of “makeshift” haven’t changed over the years, though writers have stopped using the hyphens.

Today The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the adjective this way: “suitable as a temporary or expedient substitute,” as in “used a rock as a makeshift hammer.”

And AH defines the noun as “a temporary or expedient substitute for something else,” as in “lacked a cane but used a stick as a makeshift.”

As you know, the noun “shift” has lots of other meanings. And many are connected with the verb that originally meant to arrange or put in order and later meant to substitute.

For example, the notion of change or substitution is behind the “shift” that originally (1601) was a piece of underclothing and later (1950s) came to mean a woman’s “straight loose dress,” the OED says.

The same idea of change or substitution is reflected in the “shift” that means the length of a work period (1809), the “shift” that’s a new set of workers (1812), and the “shift” that means to change gears in a car (1910).

Even the adjective “shifty” is derived from those original senses of the verb “shift.”

In the 16th-century, the OED says, the verb came to mean  “to employ shifts or evasions; to practise or use indirect methods; to practise or live by fraud, or temporary expedients.”

In the same century (1570), “shifty” meant “full of shifts or expedients,” and by the 19th century it was used to mean “fond of indirect or dishonest methods; addicted to evasion or artifice; not straightforward, not to be depended on.”

The OED’s earliest examples are from the works of Thomas Carlyle (“one of the shiftiest of men,” 1837) and John G. Kinnear (“A most shifty old fox he is,” 1841).

But we can’t resist quoting some later ones from Thackeray (“A handsome, tall, sallow-faced man, with a shifty eye,” before 1863) and Dickens (“I scorn your shifty evasions,” 1864).

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