Posted by: Jack Henry | September 6, 2022

Editor’s Corner: Short Shrift

I’m guessing that most of you have heard the term “short shrift” before (meaning unsympathetic dismissal or curt treatment), but this term has an interesting history and some related words that may be of interest to you. We’ll start with some definitions and then the historical significance.

short shrift (noun)

1: a brief respite from death

2a: summary treatment: little consideration

b: quick work

shrive (transitive verb)

shrived or shrove; shriven

or shrived; shriving; shrives

1: to hear the confession of, impose penance on, and give absolution to (a person) in the sacrament of penance <the resident parson … would sing his daily Mass and come in to shrive the sick — G. G. Coulton>

2: to free from guilt: pardon, purge <shrives his burdened mind — Robert Trumbull>

shrive (intransitive verb)

1 archaic: to hear confessions, to impose penance, and to give absolution in performance of the ecclesiastical office of confessor

2: to confess one’s sins especially to a priest

And now, for a little background on “short shrift” from

Shrift? Not a word you hear every day. In fact, apart from in this expression, it is now so rarely used that it’s hard to think of a shrift that isn’t short.

The verb shrive is also now an almost forgotten antique. A priest in a confession, often when the confessor was near to death, would shrive them by imposing a penance, called a shrift, in order to provide absolution.

Shrove Tuesday, which most of us in the UK now refer to as Pancake Day, derives from shriving – originally a day when people were shriven or shrove; more recently a day when we toss pancakes.

In the 17th century, criminals were sent to the scaffold immediately after sentencing and only had time for a cursory “short shrift” before being hanged. From that literal beginning “short shrift” migrated into meaning “give cursory consideration to.”

The term “short shrift” is ancient and has been part of the English language since at least the 16th century.

The first known use of “short shrift” in print relates to the history of the British monarchy. Following the death of Edward IV in 1483, the Duke of Gloucester was appointed Lord Protector of England. He accused Lord Hastings of plotting against him and arranged for him to be executed. Hastings was allowed only a short shrift as Gloucester was anxious to get his dinner.

An account of this story was printed almost a hundred years later in by the English writer Raphael Holinshed in The Chronicles of England, 1577. (KC – See the article for the rest of the story.)

Shakespeare had undoubtedly read the Chronicles before he wrote Richard III, first performed in 1594, as his account of the events differ little from Holinshed’s:

Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.

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

Nowadays, if you hear this phrase to mean “little consideration,” it seems like it is used quite casually. Who knew it had such a grim and lengthy history behind it?

Kara Church | Technical Editor, Advisory | Technical Publications

Pronouns: she/her | (619) 542-6773 |

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