v. (past)

(1) (*schifted) ‘shifted, declined’; (2) (MS schafted) (a) ‘beamed, shone forth’, (b) ‘set’

(Modern English (1) shift; (2) shaft)


Very likely a native word: the MS reading <schafted> of the v. at Gaw 1467 (‘Suande þis wylde swyn til þe sunne schafted’) should probably stand, but Norse derivation has been claimed for an emended *schifted: (1) The M(G) reading *<schifted> (glossed 'shifted westward' and 'declined', see Emerson 1922: 389) suggests a usage of ME shiften, though no comparable application of MED’s sense (3) (‘to go, move, depart; change, undergo an abrupt change’ etc.) to the movement of the sun is attested elsewhere.  Late OE sciftan ‘to appoint, ordain, arrange’ (also in tōsciftan ‘to distribute, separate’) is probably native; cp. OIcel skifta, skipta, OFris skifta, MLG schiften, schichten, MHG schihten, probably < a PGmc *skiptian- or *skipatjan- (thus e.g. OED, MED, AEW and further West 1936: 129 and esp. SPS). OE -sciftan (whatever the pronunciation of its initial <sc>) and ME shiften (PDE shift) have nevertheless occasionally been derived from ON skifta with sound-substitution of inital /sk/ > /ʃ/; see esp. Kluge 1901: 934, Bj., and the discussion in SPS, and further skyfted. (2) Most editors and commentators, however, accept MS <schafted> which they read as referring to the sun's rays (thus OED, MED, Knott 1915: 107, Emerson 1922: 389–90, TG(D), GDS etc.). The obvious connection is then with the ME n. shaft(e) in MED’s sense (4) ‘a sunbeam, shaft of light’, < OE sceaft ‘staff, pole’; cp. OIcel skapt, OFris skeft, OS skaft, OHG scaft < PGmc *skaft-. In context, its sense has been interpreted in two different ways: (a) referring to noon light, thus Emerson (1922: 389–90, comparing instances in Pe, Pat and WA) glosses ‘become like a shaft, shoot out in rays like shafts’ and TG 'beamed' (and at 1467n 'shone forth'); (b) referring to the sunset. GDS translate ‘set, with long rays streaming across the sky’, and TGD argue that the ‘verb schaft must presumably have acquired the sense “set” from a literal meaning such as “send out long low beams”’ (they are followed by MED and all subsequent editors, incl. PS comparing Scots shaft ‘beam of sunlight as seen as the sun becomes lower in the sky’; 1467n). 

PGmc Ancestor

(1) *skiptian- or *skipatjan-; (2) *skaft-

Proposed ON Etymon (OIcel representative)

(1) skifta, skipta ''to order, arrange'
(ONP (1) skifta (vb.)

Other Scandinavian Reflexes

(1) Far skifta, Icel skipta, skifta, Norw skifta, ODan skiftæ, Dan skifte, Sw skifta

OE Cognate

(1) sciftan ‘to appoint, ordain, arrange’; (2) sceaft (n.) ‘staff, pole’

Phonological and morphological markers

Summary category



Attestation: (1) Late OE -sciftan and ME shiften are common and widespread from their first appearance.  (2) A v. shaften in this sense is recorded nowhere else.  The (probably) related n. in the sense ‘a sunbeam, shaft of light’ is attested in ME only from the Gaw MS (Pat, Pe) and WA (but becomes more widespread from the 18c.).

Occurrences in the Gersum Corpus

Gaw 1467

Though now generally accepted, emendations have been suggested for Gaw 1467 MS <schafted>: Morris suggested *sattled ‘set, sank’ (but this is very distant from the MS reading), and MG more plausibly read *<schifted>, glossed by early translators as ‘shifted westward’ and ‘declined’.


MED shaften (v.) , OED shaft (v.1) , HTOED , Dance schifted; (1) MED shiften (v.) , OED shift (v.) , CV skipta, de Vries skipta, Mag. skipta, Orel *skiftjanan, AEW sciftan, Bj. 126, SPS 455; (2) MED shaft(e (n.2.) , OED shaft (n.2) , Orel *skaftan ~ *skaftaz, AEW sceaft (1)