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Word Wisdom: Short Shrift

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser.
Word Wisdom

I have used short shrift in two ways recently. After the Christmas feasting, I know what I need to do but I have given short shrift to making a diet plan for eating more healthily and eliminating the Noel weight gain. Now that the new guidelines for alcohol consumption are published, I have made short shrift of the report and commentaries, perhaps more out of denial of how much I consume than just not having the immediate concern for my future wellbeing. Short shrift means to make quick work of or give little attention to.

Now, I don’t want to give short shrift to the interesting history of the phrase, so here we go. It begins when the Latin verb scribere, meaning to write, came in the languages of Germanic peoples who brought it to Britain in the early Middle Ages. Germanic schreiben meant to write, draw, or paint. The English scrifan became used for laying down directions or rules in writing, and to prescribe or impose. The Church then adopted scrīfan to refer to the act of assigning penance to sinners. Penance is the act or devotion prescribed to show true sorrow over the sins confessed to a priest. Later, it came to describe the whole process, confession of sins, absolution administered by the priest, and penance. 

The earliest known use of short shrift comes from William Shakespeare’s play Richard III (first performed in 1633). As the play unfolds Lord Hastings, who has been condemned by King Richard to be beheaded, is told by Sir Richard Ratcliffe to “make a short shrift” as the king “longs to see your head.” The Church Latin scrifan, now morphed in the English shrift. So, to “make a short shrift” meant, quite literally, “keep your confession short.”

Tuesday, February 21 is called Shrove Tuesday by many people. Shrove is another Old English form of shrift. This is the last day of the Christian liturgical season before the penitential season of Lent. Ash Wednesday (February 22 this year) begins the penitential season leading into the Easter season. Traditionally, before Shrove Tuesday ends a Christian would visit the priest to make the final shrift before the start of Lent. People would often indulge in food on Shrove Tuesday that one might give up as their Lenten sacrifice for the upcoming forty days. The term Mardi Gras, French for "Fat Tuesday", refers to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season. Today some Christian congregations still observe the day by hosting a Pancake Supper. 

However, since at least the 19th century the phrase short shrift has been used figuratively to refer to a small or inadequate amount of time or attention given to something. Over the centuries the social calendars of many families included the main Christian festivals to the fullest. The rush of modern living has left some Church leaders feeling like even their own members give short shrift to these major celebrations. Christmas has become a one or two or three days gathering rather than a twelve day festival. Easter has become a one-day celebration instead of a 50 day festive season. Pentecost is practically overlooked by many Christians, especially in Canada when it often competes with the May long weekend.

I must confess, but I’ll keep it brief, that while it’s technically possible to make long shrift of something, you’re unlikely to find that phrase in dictionaries. Short shrift has kept the historical meaning alive for centuries on its own. I seem to have contracted a mild pneumonia recently. I certainly hope my body, with the help of rest and the drugs prescribed to me, will make short shrift of this illness.

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to . Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 

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