Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Why's he spell "schrift" that way?

Nobody should have to share my nerdly preoccupations, especially with words in foreign languages, so I thought I should explain the title of my blog.

The English phrase "short shrift," meaning the indifferent brushing aside of someone's concerns, originally signified an abrupt, hasty confession, usually before death. "To shrive" meant to confess one's sins, perform penance, and ask for absolution. This is the sense of the phrase as found in Shakespeare's Richard III (the first recorded use in English): Richard Ratcliffe says to Hastings, “Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.” In other words, make it snappy, because you're about to meet your maker. (Thanks to Michael Quinion for this origin story.)

Of course, "shrift" comes from the Latin scriptum by way of the German schrift, both of which mean writing or script. Kleinschrift is the German word for lower-case writing -- literally, "small script." (There's actually a German phrase, klein schreiben, meaning to make light of or set little store by -- almost exactly the contemprary English meaning of "short shrift.") But the semantics of klein and schrift, especially as they are typically compounded with other words, suggest that kleinschrift could also mean "short writing": a note, perhaps, or an essay, leaflet, or petition.

I chose "schrift" because I wanted a word that could signify all of these senses: writing, confession, essay -- even short, foul-tempered dismissal. I'm told that even my casual writings sometimes feel like reading assignments, but a weblog is no place to hem and haw and cover one's ass. If my writing here is going to be short and snappy, then I'll have to be a little short with and snap at people myself. And I can only do both of those if I think of the weblog entries as "short schrifts," scribbled post-it notes designed to open up a field of inquiry rather than exhaust it.

Finally, don't be surprised if my kleinschrift here soon becomes tied with the fortunes of my grossschrift: my dissertation in Comparative Literature, on which I begin work this fall.


Gavin said...

An excellent introduction, and I learned more about the etymology of the word "schrift" than I ever thought I'd know--and this from someone who dreams of woning the Shorter OED!

All the same, part of me can't help but wonder if, along with the linguistic gymnastics, whether "short shrift" not being available played a role in the choice. . .

No, certainly not. "Short Schrift" is too much better.

Gavin said...

Damn my typos. That works so much better when I "dream of owning" the OED, not dream of "woning" it.

Although maybe there's some good, dirty connotations to "woning" something. To the dictionary!

Tim said...

I didn't try "Short Shrift," so I don't know whether that was taken already.

Besides, I need to make those German classes count for somethin'. [:-)]

I have to say, my etymological confidence and acumen is definitely a function of having electronic access to the full Oxford English Dictionary through the Penn library. I'll make a separate post on grammar, etymologies and the OED soon.

Swati said...
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Swati said...

I have been studying german since i was 12 and i always thought that short shrift was klein schrift and literally meant scribbling quickly or writing in a small space and thus the over all meaning of making short work! I had no clue that the semantics of shrift were linked to the Church! It is also interesting to note that "shrive" sounds like the german "schreib" which means to write. Of course they both come from the same latin root 'scribo' (write). I guess that the confession (shrive), at some point of time in history, was a written confession, hence a derivative of scribo was used for the act. So 'klein schrift' and 'short shrift' etynmologically are, in fact, literal translations of each other. However, they came to have the same phrasal meaning in a rather roundabout manner. Semantics never cease to amaze me. Language indeed is a "Lebensform"! (Witt)