Q. I am curious about the origin of the phrase "to give short shrift." What exactly is "shrift"?

A. "Shrift" is a very old word that originally, back in the 11th century, meant "penance." It is a noun derivative of the verb "shrive." "Shrive" is from Old English "scrifan," which is from the Latin verb "scribere," meaning "to write." "Scrifan" was the verb of choice for use specifically in regard to writing down rules, decrees or sentences, so it took on the special meaning of "to impose a sentence." Applied to church vernacular, it meant "to assign penance to a penitent in the confessional" and "to hear confession." Then it came to mean "to administer absolution to a penitent" as well. In modern times, the church sense has been generalized and "shrive," which is now quite a rare word, means "to absolve of guilt."

In one of its earliest used, the noun "shrift," paralleling the verb, took on the sense "absolution." Later it was also used to designate the sacrament of confession as a whole, in which the sinner confesses to a priest, is given a penance, and is absolved of guilt. When Shakespeare, in Richard III (1594), had Sir Richard Ratcliff callously demand that Lord Hastings "make a short shrift" because the Duke of Gloucester wanted him beheaded before dinner, he was using the "confession" sense. Shakespeare's use of the phrase "short shrift" is the earliest example that has yet been found.

Two hundred years later Sir Walter Scott used a variant of the phrase in his poem Lord of the Isles. He wrote of the terrible battle of Bannockburn in which the Lord of Lorn managed to escape unscathed, only because he had succeeded in avoiding the hero of the battle, Robert the Bruce: "Short were his shrift in that debate,/ That hour of fury and of fate,/ If Lorn encountered Bruce!" Scott's "shrift" doesn't mean "confession," but a "time before meeting death." "Short shrift" thus came to mean "a brief respite before death," so that a criminal who was given short shrift was being shown no mercy and could expect a quick trip to the gallows.

"Short shrift" is not so much a matter of life and death in current English. Nowadays when we "give short shrift" (or receive it) we're talking mostly about giving scant attention or consideration to something. The usual implication is that something or someone is being improperly ignored or treated lightly, as in a comment that U.S. television coverage of recent Olympics has overemphasized Americans and "given short shrift to the athletes of other nations." The phrase is also now sometimes used to mean "quick work," as in "With my new computer, I can make short shrift of all my correspondence." The original sense of "shrift" is entirely lost in these modern uses.

Q. About 75 years ago, my father brought home to eat something called "St. John's Bread." It was very hard and dry, kind of sweet, and looked like a flat black banana. What exactly is it? Is it from the Middle East? Is it the fruit that kept St. John alive? Is it still available in the United States?

A. "St. John's Bread" is none other than carob, a pulp widely used as a chocolate substitute and readily available in health food shops across the nation. The carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua), as you guessed, is indeed native to the Eastern Mediterranean region and is also cultivated in some parts of the United States, such as Florida and California. The tree grows to a height of approximately 50 feet and has red flowers followed by flat, leathery pods of anywhere between 3 and 12 inches in length - the "flat black bananas" you refer to. These pods contain the seeds as well as the sweet pulp, and are known also as "locusts," in the belief that they were the "locusts" that, according to the Book of Matthew, kept St. John the Baptist alive in the wilderness.