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Ramshackle – Podictionary Word of the Day

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I heard a woman talking about an old ski cabin she used to rent. She said it was ramshackled.

I wondered how a male goat (a ram) secured to something (shackled) might mean, in The Oxford English Dictionary’s words “loose and shaky, as if ready to fall to pieces; rickety, tumbledown; in a state of severe disrepair.”

Goats and shackles don’t play into the etymology of this word at all.

Like too many words that sound so delicious the etymology of ramshackle is a little unclear.

People started calling tumbledown buildings ramshackle a little less than 200 years ago.

For 100 years before that it had been ramshackled.

Etymology dictionaries of the time speculated that it was built on a Scottish prefix ram which was an intensifier, and shauchle, another possibly Scottish word that had first meant to “shuffle your feet” but then later meant to “wear out” your shoes by shuffling your feet.

Thus ram shauchle would mean “really worn out.”

But the timing of the appearance of these component words in the written record seems to make this assembly unlikely.

Ramshackled was already in fairly common use before the shoe worn shauchle appeared at all.

So it was back to the etymological drawing board.

The more recent theory is that houses that are called ramshackle are called that because that’s what they look like after they are ransacked.

This etymology has the advantage that the word ransacked is historically related to houses or buildings and not shoes and ramshackle similarly applies to buildings.

Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.

Recent Comments

  1. chris weidman

    chasing down the origin of this word — most current etymologies seem rather weakly grounded – the connection with ransack seems plausible and perhaps correct — thouch as someone who has spent time working at sea (working with various chains and shackles) I’ve wondered about its links to chains and shackles — the connecting link from chain to holdfast (anchor or tool of some kind) that is often driven or “rammed” (hammered) together — i’ve even used the term ramshackle myself to refer to a specific kind of chain link that is hammered (or squeezed with a strong pliers) ) together. Its a rather crude type of shackle as opposed to a “bolt screw and u-shackle.” But this is all derived from my own nautical perspective, which may not be the term’s line of origin.

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