Short, sharp shock

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The cover of a vocal score for Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado

The phrase "short, sharp shock" means "a quick, severe punishment."[1] It is an example of alliteration. Although the phrase originated earlier, it was popularised 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".[2] It has since been used in popular songs, song titles, literature, as well as in general speech.


John Conington's 1870 translation of the First Satire of Horace includes the following lines:

Yon soldier's lot is happier, sure, than mine:
One short, sharp shock, and presto! all is done.[3]

The Mikado[edit]

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 beheading must occur immediately. In the dialogue preceding the song, three government officials, Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko and Pish-Tush, discuss which of them should be beheaded in order to save the town from "irretrievable ruin". Pooh-Bah says that although his enormous "family pride" would normally prompt him to volunteer for such an important civic duty, he has decided to "mortify" his pride, and so he declines this heroic 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.

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 the "short, sharp shock" caused by being beheaded:

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a lifelong lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block![4]

In popular culture[edit]

Songs and albums[edit]

The phrase is particularly popular in music. For example, the phrase is used in the song "Us and Them" (from Pink Floyd's 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon).[5]

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 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"[6] 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.[7]


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", meaning electrocution.

UK politics[edit]

Since Gilbert and Sullivan used the phrase in The Mikado, "short, sharp shock" has been used in political discourse in the UK.[8] The phrase met renewed popularity with respect to government policy on young offenders pursued by the Conservative government of 1979–1990 under Margaret Thatcher,[9] having appeared in the 1979 Conservative Policy manifesto, which promised that the party would "experiment with a tougher regime as a short, sharp shock for young criminals".[10] These policies led to the enactment of the Criminal Justice Acts of 1982 and 1988 which, among other reforms, replaced borstals with the youth detention centres in place today.[11]


  1. ^ short, sharp shock Collins Dictionary. Retrieved: 2012-08-20.
  2. ^ Bradley, pp. 589–590
  3. ^ Satires of Horace, translated by John Coningsby (1870), London: Bell and Daldy
  4. ^ Gilbert, W. S. The Mikado, libretto, p. 16, Oliver Ditson Company
  5. ^ Longfellow, Matthew. "Pink Floyd: The Making of Dark Side of the Moon (1997), documentary film
  6. ^ "Billy Bragg – It Says Here Lyrics",, accessed 24 February 2015
  7. ^ "They Might Be Giants – Circular Karate Chop Lyrics", Warner/chappell Music, accessed 24 February 2015
  8. ^ Green, Edward. "Ballads, songs and speeches", BBC News, 20 September 2004, accessed 30 September 2009
  9. ^ "Tories on Young Criminals 1984", Interview of John Wheeler on TV AM, uploaded to YouTube on 14 August 2011, accessed 24 February 2015
  10. ^ "Conservative General Election Manifesto 1979", Margaret Thatcher Foundation, 11 April 1979, accessed 24 February 2015
  11. ^ Grimwood, Gabrielle Garton and Pat Strickland. "Young offenders: What next?", UK House of Commons briefing paper, 23 October 2013, accessed 24 February 2015


  • Bradley, Ian (1996). The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816503-X.

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