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Beat the reaper.

Dear Word Detective: I have a question, the answer to which I hope you won’t give short shrift. What’s a “shrift”? — Jack Pounds.

That’s a good question. I often say that because a reader has asked about a word or phrase that I find particularly interesting or one that proves especially challenging to research, so my judgment of “good question” is a bit subjective. But this question must objectively be a good question, because people ask it about once a year. So I wait a decade or so and play it again, Sam. Yes, I know Bogey never really said it, but your name isn’t Sam, so we’re even.

I just plugged “short shrift” into Google News, which found 516 results, many in headlines ranging from “Sport gets short shrift from the great and good” (Irish Times) to “Seniors given short shrift” (Ottawa Citizen) to “Is My Child Getting the ‘Short Shrift?'” (Technorati). The allure of “short shrift” for headline writers is no doubt its brevity; the Merriam-Webster definition of the phrase, “little or no attention or consideration,” takes up way too much space and lacks that snappy alliteration.

As a fixed phrase or idiom, “short shrift” dates back to the late 16th century, when William Shakespeare apparently coined it in his play Richard III. The noun “shrift” is based on the verb “to shrive,” and both words are derived from the Old English verb “scrifan,” which was derived from the Latin verb “scribere,” meaning “to write” (also the source of “scribe,” “script,” etc.).

While “scribere” produced a lot of words in English and other languages meaning “to write” in various senses, “scrifan” and its modern descendant “shrive” originally had the very specific religious meaning of “to hear the confession of a penitent, prescribe penance (presumably in writing), and grant absolution.” The noun “shrift” has meant, at various points, all these stages of the process: the confession, the sentence of penance, and the absolution. This sense of “confession and absolution” persists in Shrove Tuesday (“shrove” being the past tense of “shrive”), the day before Ash Wednesday in the Christian religious calendar, which is traditionally an occasion of confession and absolution.

By Shakespeare’s time, the meaning of “shrift” had settled on “the opportunity to confess and be absolved of sin before a sentence is carried out,” most often a death sentence. Thus in Richard III, Lord Hastings, about to be beheaded on Richard’s orders, is told “Make a short Shrift, he longs to see your Head” (meaning that Hasting should make his confession quick because the King is impatient for the execution). While Shakespeare may have been the first to use “short shrift” in print, the phrase did not, apparently, become an immediate popular hit. In fact it dropped out of sight in the written record for more than two centuries, and the next printed occurrence that we know of popped up in the early 19th century, when it was used in two novels by Sir Walter Scott.

Both Scott and subsequent 19th century authors used the phrase in the original “last words” sense, and it wasn’t until the 1880s that our modern, less grisly sense of “brief and superficial consideration” emerged (“Every argument … tells with still greater force against the present measure, and it is to be hoped that the House of Commons will give it short shrift to-night,” 1887). This “quick once-over” sense of “shrift” is now the only sense of the word in common usage, and “shrift” is almost never seen outside the fixed phrase “short shrift.”

The phrase “make short shrift of” is also common, and means simply “to get something done or resolved quickly” in a more neutral sense (“Bob finally gave up and called a plumber, who made short shrift of the problem.”).

Jack Robinson

The little man who was barely there.

Dear Word Detective: My wife often uses the expression “quick as you can say Jack Robinson” to denote something that can be done or happen very quickly, as in “That house got built quicker than you can say Jack Robinson.” I am wondering where this expression originated from and what in the world is the basis for it. — Andrew Workum.

Welcome to the party. There’s quite a crowd here waiting for the answer, but I think there’s a seat on the davenport over there. Unfortunately, the only refreshments we get are things they consider “etymologically interesting,” so I hope you like swill and gruel. You should be glad you missed last week. Two words: Haggis Night. Anyway, you’re lucky you’re here and not down the block in Whole Nine Yards Stadium. Things get pretty hairy in there, what with all the ropes, machine guns and burial shrouds.

As you may have guessed from that paragraph, the precise origin of the phrase “Quicker than you can say Jack Robinson” is, unfortunately, a mystery of long standing. There have been a predictable slew of theories proposed about origin of the phrase, to which we will get shortly. But before we begin, it’s worth noting that nobody actually knows where the name “Jack” itself came from. “Jack” first appeared in written form in the 13th century, and most scholars believe that it was adapted from the French “Jacques.” But “Jack” in English has always been used as a “pet” or “familiar” name for “John,” and there’s a school of thought that “Jack” evolved all by itself in English without the help of “Jacques.”

One data point in favor of “Jack” being rooted in “Jacques,” however, is that “Jacques” has long been used in French as a “typical name” signifying a man of low social status, “the common man” or “a regular guy.” By the mid-16th century, “Jack” was playing the same role in English, and was used in phrases such as “every man jack” (everyone) and “on one’s jack” (by oneself, alone), as well as a casual form of address for an unfamiliar man (“Whatchoo lookin’ at, Jack?”). “Jack” was (and still is) also used to mean a manual laborer who performs specific jobs, such as a “steeplejack” or a “lumberjack” (but the true “jack of all trades” was, sadly, last spotted riding out of town on a unicorn).

One of the most interesting uses of “jack” that developed was as a term for a device or tool that performed the function of an imaginary helper or otherwise proved helpful in a task. Thus we use “jack” to mean the gizmo we use to raise a car, a fitting or socket into which something important plugs, or one of a thousand small parts of larger machines. Uses like these eventually led to “jack” becoming a slang synonym for “small” or “nothing,” as in “You don’t know jack about haggis.”

“Before you can say Jack Robinson,” meaning “quickly, in a very short time (or suddenly)” first appeared in print in 1778 in Frances (Fanny) Burney’s novel “Evelina” (“I’d do it as soon as say Jack Robinson”), but probably was in wide use before that time. The most vivid theory about the origin of the phrase traces it to a Sir John Robinson, who served as His Majesty’s Lieutenant at the Tower of London around 1600, and supposedly became famous for the alacrity with which he conducted beheadings. Robinson certainly existed and held the job; Samuel Pepys referred to him as “a talking bragging bufflehead.” But to say that this theory lacks solid supporting evidence would be a gross understatement; among other problems, there’s no record of the phrase, or a reputation for quick action, ever being tied to Robinson at the time.

It’s more likely, as the early lexicographer of slang Francis Grose suggested in 1811, that at some point there was an individual named Jack Robinson who became locally famous, perhaps in London society, for the brevity of his visits, and the phrase simply eventually spread. It’s also possible that a popular song or story at the time concerned just such a rude Jack Robinson, whose behavior was echoed by Groucho Marx in that famous song from “Animal Crackers” more than a 150 years after Burney’s novel: “Hello, I must be going, I cannot stay, I came to say, I must be going. I’m glad I came, but just the same, I must be going.”


All fall down.

Dear Word Detective: I have a favorite word that I’ve only heard from one person. It may be a regionalism (from a very small region, perhaps). The word is “ramacackle.” I’m not sure of the spelling. It means run “down, dilapidated, falling apart.” I heard it in reference to an old house. Has anyone else ever heard of “ramacackle,” or do I live in my own little world? Or both? I think we should all start using it constantly, because it’s such a great word, and we need to have it in our language. — KR.

A region of one? Works for me. Actually, it reminds me of the US Army recruiting slogan from a few years ago, “An Army of One.” I never understood what the heck that was supposed to mean. To paraphrase Calvin & Hobbes, government money going to ad agencies weirds language.

Interestingly, the idea of “a region of one” is entirely valid in matters of language. Every human being speaks an “idiolect,” a personal version of whatever language they think they speak, and that idiolect inevitably differs, in at least some tiny respect, from the idiolects their family, friends, etc., speak. (“Idiolect,” combining “idio,” a prefix from Greek meaning “distinct” or “personal,” with “lect” from “dialect,” was coined by Bernard Bloch, an American linguist, in 1948.) Your personal vocabulary, choices of idioms and metaphors, grammatical quirks, pronunciation of words, sentence length and many other variables distinguish your particular idiolect. Many linguists consider any language, in fact, as the sum of the idiolects spoken by its speakers, rather than as an “ideal” fixed language from which we all depart to various degrees in personal speech.

Meanwhile, back at your actual question, I have been unable to find any record of “ramacackle” or anything close to it. I think what we have here is, to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, a failure to communicate. In all likelihood, the person who said “ramacackle” actually meant “ramshackle,” which does mean “run down, dilapidated, falling apart.” (It’s also possible that “ramacackle” is an obscure folk variant of “ramshackle,” but, if so, it must be very obscure indeed.)

“Ramshackle” first appeared in print in 1820 as an adjective describing a person or action considered erratic, unstable or “disordered,” and was quickly applied to buildings, etc., that were severely dilapidated, run-down, etc. “Ramshackle” soon also became a noun meaning such a building, vehicle, etc. (“There are ramshackles and hovels ‘out yonder’ so packed with families, so crowded with children,” 1912).

“Ramshackle,” interestingly, originated as a variant on the much older (1675) adjective “ramshackled,” which may sound like what happens to a bad male sheep when the farm police show up, but actually meant the same thing as “ramshackle.” Follow the trail a bit further back and you hit “ransackle,” which, back in 1605, was a variant of “ransack,” meaning “to search thoroughly in order to find something” (“Vainly ransacking my mind for some expression of thanks that wouldn’t sound ironical,” 1903). “Ransack” comes from the Old Norse “rannsaka,” meaning “to search a house.” Although we often use “ransack” today to describe the actions of burglars, when the word first appeared in English in the 14th century, it was primarily used to mean to search a person or house for something stolen from another person. But whether the motive is law enforcement or law-breaking, the result of “ransacking” has always usually been a mess.

So, put that all together and we have “ramshackle,” originally describing a thing, place or person that appeared to have been “ransacked” and was left shaky, run-down and barely able to stand.