Word of the week: shrift

English speakers have heard and occasionally use the expression “short shrift” as in giving “little or no attention to”: He gives short shrift to the work of contemporary composers, or “quick work” such as: They made short shrift of their homework, so they could go outside to play. 

The implication is that it is something little, brief or non-existent. But what exactly does the word “shrift” mean? We don’t use it in any other context today, except when combined with “short”.

Here is Merriam-Webster‘s definition of shrift:

  1. archaic(n):  a remission of sins pronounced by a priest in the sacrament of reconciliation :  the act of shriving: confessional

  2. 2obsolete:  confessional

Dictionary.com defines it:

noun, Archaic.
1. the imposition of penance by a priest on a penitent after confession.
2. absolution or remission of sins granted after confession and penance.

3. confession to a priest.



Picture downloaded from Google images.

This is something we may want to keep short! But the word has fallen out of use in other contexts. The expression “short shrift” actually came from a confession that a condemned prisoner made before his execution (first appeared 1685-1695). The executioners probably wanted this to be short, but perhaps the prisoner did not!

noose1                                                        Google images: rollingout.com

But the word shrift itself comes from Old English scrift (before AD 900) meaning “penance.” This is a false cognate of German and Dutch schrift, which means “writing”. (It’s a false cognate because although it is a similar word, it doesn’t mean the same thing.)

The idea for this post came from a post I got on Facebook: “12 Old Words that Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms.” It’s true that we would never use or even have heard of the word shrift if it weren’t part of the idiom short shrift.
I love learning about words!

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