meaning and origin of the phrase ‘short shrift’

The expression short shrift means brief and unsympathetic treatment, and to make short shrift of means to dispose of quickly and unsympathetically.

A short shrift was originally a brief space of time allowed for a criminal to make his or her confession before execution. The expression is first recorded in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third (around 1592) by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III, orders the execution of Lord Hastings, who has remained loyal to King Edward IV’s sons:

(Quarto 1, 1597)
– Gloucester: Off with his head. Now by Saint Paule,

I will not dine to day I sweare,
Vntill I see the same, some see it done,
The rest that loue me, come and follow me.
– Hastings: Wo wo for England, not a whit for me:
For I too fond might haue preuented this:
Stanley did dreame the boare¹ did race his helme,
But I disdaind it, and did scorne to flie,
Three times to day, my footecloth horse did stumble,
And startled when he lookt vpon the tower,
As loath to beare me to the slaughterhouse.
Oh, now I want the Priest that spake to me,
I now repent I tolde the Pursiuant,
As twere triumphing at mine enemies:
How they at Pomfret bloudily were butcherd,
And I my selfe secure in grace and fauour:
Oh Margaret Margaret: now thy heauy curse²,
Is lighted on poore Hastings wretched head.
– Catesby: Dispatch my Lo [sic]: the Duke would be at dinner:
Make a short shrift, he longs to see your head.

¹ The boar is Richard’s heraldic symbol.
² Margaret, widow of King Henry VI, has cursed Hastings to die an early death.

The obsolete noun shrift meant penance imposed by the priest after confession and confession to a priest. It is derived from the archaic verb shrive, which meant, of a priest, to hear the confession of, assign penance to, and absolve, and to present oneself to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution. Of Germanic origin, this verb is related to Dutch schrijven, German schreiben, Swedish skriva and Danish skrive, which all mean to write. These Germanic verbs are ultimately from Latin scribere, to write. (The English noun script is from Latin scriptum, neuter past participle used as a noun of scribere.)

The English noun shrift corresponds to Dutch schrift, German Schrift, Swedish and Danish skrift. The meanings penance and confession are confined to English and Scandinavian, arising apparently from an original meaning of prescribed penalty. The other languages have only the senses writing, graphic art, scripture, written character.

The English verb shrive is related to the first element of Shrove Tuesday, so called because, as the day before the Christian fast of Lent, it is an occasion for preparatory confession.

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