Short, sharp shock
The phrase "short, sharp shock" means "a quick, severe punishment." It was originally used in Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 comic opera The Mikado, where it appears in the song near the end of Act I, "I Am So Proud". It has since been used in popular songs, song titles, literature, as well as in general speech.
Since Gilbert and Sullivan used the phrase in The Mikado, "short, sharp shock" has been used in political discourse. The phrase met renewed popularity under the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom, when the then Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw introduced the "short, sharp shock" treatment at detention centres for young criminals (advertised as part of the 1979 Conservative Party Manifesto).[clarification needed]
In opera and popular culture
In Act I of the 1885 Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado, the Emperor of Japan, having learned that the town of Titipu is behind on its quota of executions, has decreed that at least one resident of the town must be executed immediately. Otherwise the town will be reduced to the status of a village. In the dialogue preceding the song, three characters, Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko and Pish-Tush, discuss which of them should be beheaded in order to save the town from "irretrievable ruin". Although Pooh-Bah's enormous "family pride" would normally prompt him to volunteer for important civic duties, he has decided to "mortify" his pride, and so he declines this undertaking. He points out that since Ko-Ko is already under sentence of death for the capital crime of flirting, Ko-Ko is the obvious choice to be beheaded. Pish-Tush helpfully notes that he had heard that beheading is not all that painful (although he does not seem certain of this).
The three characters then sing the song "I Am So Proud". In the last lines of the song, Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko and Pish-Tush contemplate "the sensation" of a "short, sharp shock" caused by being beheaded:
- To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
- In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock
- Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock
- From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block.
Songs and albums
Short Sharp Shock is also the name of a 1984 album by Chaos UK. It also appears in the title of an album, Short Sharp Shocked, by Michelle Shocked and the EP "Shortsharpshock" by Therapy?. Short Sharp Shock is the name of a crossover thrash band from Liverpool, England. The British electronic rock band (We Are) Performance have a song called "Short Sharp Shock" on their self-titled album. The phrase is used in the song "East Side Beat" by The Toasters, and in the 1980 song Stand Down Margaret by The Beat. It can also be found in the lyrics of a Billy Bragg song entitled "It Says Here" found on his 1984 album Brewing Up with Billy Bragg and of a They Might Be Giants song entitled "Circular Karate Chop" on their 2013 album Nanobots.
In literature, the phrase is used in the title of a 1990 fantasy novel, A Short, Sharp Shock by Kim Stanley Robinson. In the 1996 fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay, police commander Sam Vimes is "all for giving criminals a short, sharp shock".
- short, sharp shock Collins Dictionary. Retrieved: 2012-08-20.
- Green, Edward. "Ballads,songs and speeches", BBC News, 20 September 2004, accessed 30 September 2009
- The Mikado libretto, p. 16, Oliver Ditson Company
- Longfellow, Matthew. "Pink Floyd: The Making of Dark Side of the Moon (1997), documentary film
- Billy Bragg website
- Lyrics to "It Says Here"
- Extensive information about The Mikado including Midi file and lyrics to the song
- Example of the phrase being employed in connection with the treatment of prisoners