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The meaning and origin of the expression: Short shrift

Short shrift

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Short shrift'?

To give 'short shrift' is to give little and unsympathetic attention to.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Short shrift'?

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 him or her by imposing a penance, called a shrift, in order to provide absolution.

Short shriftShrove 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:

Lorde Chamberlaine, whome the Protectour hade speede and shrine him apace, for by Saint Paule I will not to dinner till I see thy head off. It booted him not [it mattered not to him] to aske why, but made a short shrift for a longer would not be suffered, the Protector made so much hast to dinner.

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Short shrift' 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.

'Short shrift' didn't migrate across the Atlantic very quickly. The first citation that I can find from there is from the Adams Sentinel, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, August 1841:

"The negroes were to be tried on Wednesday, and it was believed that a short shrift and a speedy doom would be awarded to the guilty."

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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