August 17, 2006

A short judicial shift

In her recent U.S. District Court decision in the ACLU v. NSA case, Hon. Anna Diggs Taylor wrote:

As long ago as the Youngstown case, the Truman administration argued that the cumbersome procedures required to obtain warrants made the process unworkable. The Youngstown court made short shift of that argument and, it appears, the present Defendants’ need for speed and agility is equally weightless. The Supreme Court in the Keith, as well as the Hamdi cases, has attempted to offer helpful solutions to the delay problem, all to no avail. [p. 42]

"Made short shift" may well have been some anonymous law clerk's typographical error for the expected archaic idiom "made short shrift". Then again, the Eggcorn Database's entry for short shift already includes citations from the Guardian, the Stanford Daily, and the Johns Hopkins Newsletter. The reflexes of the verb to shrive in modern English are few and far between -- how many know what "Shrove Tuesday" is really all about? "Short shrift" would probably not survive at all if it hadn't been used by Shakespeare; and "short shift" could mean a number of semi-sensible things, from a limited period of duty to a compact gear lever or an abbreviated chemise.

As the OED explains, shrift has a long past but a doubtful present and future, with no citations for the "short shrift" idiom between William Shakespeare in the 16th century and Sir Walter Scott in the 19th:

[OE. scrift m., corresp. to OFris. skrift m. and f., MDu. schrift (schricht) f. and n., (Du. schrift), OHG. scrift f. (MHG., G. schrift), ON. skript, skrift f. (Sw., Da. skrift), vbl. n. f. SHRIVE v.
The meanings ‘penance’, ‘confession’ are confined to English and Scandinavian, arising app. from an original meaning of ‘prescribed penalty’. The other languages have only the senses ‘writing’, ‘graphic art’, ‘scripture’, ‘written character’.]

1. Penance imposed by the priest after confession; chiefly in phr. as to take, nim shrift; to do shrift; to give shrift. Obs.

9. short shrift: orig. a brief space of time allowed for a criminal to make his confession before execution; hence, a brief respite; to give short shrift to, to make short work of.

1594 SHAKES. Rich. III, III. iv. 97 Make a short Shrift, he longs to see your Head.
1814 SCOTT Ld. of Isles V. xxxii, Short were his shrift in that debate... If Lorn encounter'd Bruce!

Still, "made|make|makes|making short shift" has only 203 Google hits, to 25,800 for "made|make|makes|making short shrift".

[Hat tip to Fernando Pereira.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 17, 2006 10:26 PM