Stupid Question ™
June 5, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: I’ve been getting short shrift from my congressmen and congresswomen. So what the heck is “shrift”?
A: From its start around AD 900, “shrift” meant, in Catholicism, a religious penance, usually one undertaken under a priest’s order after confession. A priest could “give shrift” to you.
Shrift (like the closely related “shrive”) later came to mean the confession itself, a meaning which naturally broadened into a more generic, secular definition of confession or otherwise letting the cat out of the bag.
It comes from Old English “scrift,” which corresponds to various Germanic derivations and roots. In its oldest Germanic forms, it referred to writing or written characters (see also, “scribe”).
The “Oxford English Dictionary” notes that the meanings of “penance” and “confession” developed only in the English and Scandinavian versions of the Germanic term. It is presumed the meaning came from a time when penances were written down.
A “short shrift,” therefore, is a brief confession—specifically, the one a condemned criminal was allowed to make prior to execution.
“Short shrift” was fairly quickly adapted to mean a short break or rest—though babbling apologies to delay one’s beheading doesn’t seem all that restful.
But it was only in the 1800s that “short shrift” really became a popular phrase, especially in the construction “to give short shrift to,” meaning to give a matter very little time (and by implication, attention). Many people get no “shrift” whatsoever from their elected officials. An unlucky few get “short shrift” in the old Elizabethan sense.
Q: Why do we sing “tadaa!”? Is it imitative of trumpeting? Is the same with “voila”?
A: Voila! Here’s a true rarity—a word that, as far as I can tell, has gone completely unexamined. I can’t even give you a date range for the appearance of “tadaa!”
But I think you’re right. We do sing the word as if it’s an orchestral or horn section fanfare.
My crazed guess is it could be related to “ta-ta” (“goodbye”), which originated in British baby-talk from unknown sources. The “Oxford English Dictionary” claims it was first pronounced more like “tat-ah.” But it more likely comes from some ironic adaptation of a score, movie or TV show.
We certainly use it the same way we use “voila”—an exclamation meaning, “Here I am!” or, “There it is!”
But “voila” is not a fanfare. It’s straight French, from the imperative of voir (“to see”) and là (“there”)—literally, “See there!” It entered English in the early 1700s and was usually used in the commonplace way it was in French, meaning “there is.” For example, you could say, “If I go into my back yard, voila a tree and hammock.”
Only in the 1800s did our modern use as a dramatic exclamation become popular.