Short Shrift

Today, the definition of short shrift is to be treated curtly or unfairly, but the original meaning could make you want to reach for a rosary.

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
2-minute read

short shrift

Has anyone ever given you the short shrift?

If so, it probably didn’t feel good. 

When you get the short shrift, you’re treated unsympathetically. You get cursory attention and little time.

Say you want to impress the judges at the science fair, but they walk right past your display. You just got the short shrift. Or say you’re talking to your boss about your new ideas, but she cuts you off mid-sentence and walks away. You got the short shrift, too. 

But what’s the shrift? And why is it short?

The answer is more gruesome than you may think.

A shrift is the penance a priest gives you after confession. For example, he might ask you to recite three Hail Marys or say the rosary.

A short shrift is little more extreme. It refers to the short time a prisoner is given for confession—before he’s executed.  

A short shrift was orignally a rushed confession.

You don’t want that kind of shrift.

The Oxford English Dictionary reports that this phrase, like so many others, is first found in the works of Shakespeare. Scholars are starting to believe that a lot of words and phrases attributed to Shakespeare were already in use during his day, but for now, Shakespeare is the earliest source we have. 

In Richard III, Shakespeare depicts the bloody rise to power of King Richard III of England. The villain climbs his way to the throne atop a slew of murders and executions.  

One of his victims, Lord Hastings, is arrested and receives this warning: 

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

Hastings responds thusly:

Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head.
They smile at me that shortly shall be dead.

If you’re even given the short shrift, I hope it doesn’t end as badly for you as it did for Hastings. 

That’s your tidbit for today. To get the short shrift means to be treated curtly and without much care.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.


Ammer, Christine. Short shrift, give. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. http://bit.ly/28KIava (subscription required, accessed June 21, 2016).

Dent, Susie. Short, give someone short shrift. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Next: Don't take prepositions so literally.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.