Etymology
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shift (v.)

Middle English shiften, from Old English sciftan, scyftan "arrange, place, put in order" (a sense now obsolete), also "divide, separate, partition; distribute, allot, share" (now obsolete or provincial), from Proto-Germanic *skiftan (source also of Old Norse skipta "to divide, change, separate," Old Frisian skifta "to decide, determine, test," Dutch schiften "to divide, turn," German schichten "to classify," Schicht "shift"). This is said to be related to the source of Old English sceadan "divide, separate" (see shed (v.)).

By c. 1200 as "to dispose; make ready; set in order, control," also intransitive, "take care of oneself." Thus "manage to succeed, make out a livelihood" (as in shift for oneself, 1510s; also compare makeshift).

The sense of "to alter, to change" appeared by mid-13c. (compare shiftless). Also from mid-13c. in the transitive sense of "remove and replace with another or others," originally especially of clothing, hence "put on and replace one's clothes" (c.1400).

From c. 1300 as "to go, move, depart; move (someone or something), transport" as from one place or position to another. The meaning "change the gear setting of an engine" is from 1910; to shift gears in the figurative sense is from 1961. Related: Shifted; shifting.

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shift (n.1)

c. 1300, "a movement, a beginning," from shift (v.); by mid-15c. as "an attempt, expedient, or means." This is the word in make shift "make efforts" (mid-15c.; see makeshift). The specific sense of "means to an end" is from 1520s, hence "a device, a trick." The sense of "change, alteration" in character, place, position, etc., is from 1560s.

The meaning "mechanism for changing gear in a motor vehicle" is recorded from 1914. Typewriter shift key is so called by 1893; its shift-lock is so called from 1899.

The meaning "period of working time" (originally in a mine) is attested from 1809, perhaps from or influenced by an older sense "relay of horses" (1708); perhaps also influenced by a North Sea Germanic cognate word (such as North Frisian skeft "division, stratum," skaft "one of successive parties of workmen"). Similar double senses of "division" and "relay of workers" is in Swedish skift, German schicht.

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shift (n.2)

"body garment, underclothing," 1590s, originally used alike of men's and women's garments, probably from shift (n.1), which was commonly used in reference to a change of clothes. In 17c., shift (n.) in this sense began to be used as a euphemism for smock, and was itself displaced, for similar reasons of delicacy, in 19c. by chemise.

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night-shift (n.)

1710, "garment worn by a woman at night," from night (n. ) + shift (n.2). The meaning "gang of workers employed after dark" is attested from 1839, from shift (n.1).  

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swing-shift (n.)

1941 (typically 4 p.m. to midnight), from the notion of "facing both ways" between day and night shifts; see swing (v.) + shift (n.).

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shiftless (adj.)

"wanting in resources or energy and ability to shift for oneself, deficient in organizing or executive ability," 1580s, from shift (n.1) in the sense "resources" + -less. Also compare shift (v.). Related: Shiftlessly; shiftlessness.

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shifting (adj.)

late 15c., "changing, changeable, varying, unsteady," present-participle adjective from shift (v.). By 1580s as "shifty, using tricks or deceits."

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scene-shifter (n.)

"one who arranges the movable scenes in a theater as the play requires," 1752, from scene (n.) "stage-setting" + agent noun from shift (v.).

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shifty (adj.)

1560s, "well able to manage for oneself, fertile in expedients," from shift (n.1) in secondary sense of "dodge, trick, artifice" + -y (2). The meaning "habitually using dishonest methods, characterized by trickery, not straightforward" is by 1837. Of the wind, in a sense of "prone to shifting," by 1884. Related: Shiftily; shiftiness.

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shifter (n.)

1550s, "one who shifts" in any way; agent noun from shift (v.). As a mechanical contrivance used for shifting, from 1869; specifically of the gear-changing mechanism in a motor-vehicle by 1915 (short for gear-shifter, 1910). It was also formerly the name of a ship's cook's assistant whose job, among other work, was shifting the salt provisions (1704).

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