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The shambolic life of ‘shambles’

You just lost your job. Your partner broke up with you. You’re late on rent. Then, you dropped your iPhone in the toilet.

“My life’s in shambles!” you shout.

Had you so exclaimed, say, in an Anglo-Saxon village over 1,000 years ago, your fellow Old English speakers may have given you a puzzled look. “Your life’s in footstools?” they’d ask. “And what’s an iPhone?”

Some centuries later, had you cried out your despair in Chaucer’s London, your Middle English-speaking compatriots may have given you some sympathy: “Yup, the meat market is a tough trade”.

See, the word shambles has really changed over the years.

Chaos, omnishambles, and chairs

Today, shambles conveys a state of ‘confusion’ or ‘chaos’ – or a ‘hot mess’, more colloquially. The word enjoyed some special attention back in 2012. Then, Oxford Dictionaries named omnishambles – first used by Malcolm Tucker in the BBC’s The Thick of It – as its UK Word of the Year. The coinage later inspired the Twitter hashtag #RomneyShambles, which mocked 2012 US presidential candidate Mitt Romney after his gaffe about London’s Olympics preparations.

But for all its recent wordplay, the English language has long been creative with shambles.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds evidence of shambles all the back in Old English. Back then, a shamble – or sceamel, among its many other spellings – named a ‘stool’ or a ‘footstool’. Anticipating shamble’s modern spelling, the Old English sc sounded more like the Modern English sh. And as far as I can tell, the b in shambles is what linguists would call ‘excrescent’ or ‘epenthetic’; that is, a non-etymological sound speakers add to the middle of certain words, just as many pronounce hamster as hamptser.

Shamble, etymologists explain, was a common West Germanic borrowing of Latin’s scamellum, a diminutive of scamnum, a ‘bench’ or a ‘stool’. Modern German’s Schemel, for example, retains this earlier meaning of shamble, while the word took a much different direction in English – the direction of metaphorical extension.

Butchering shambles

In Old English, shamble was extended from ‘stool’ to a ‘table’ or ‘counter’ where goods were sold. By the 1300s, shambles signified a table or stall where meat, specifically, was sold; later a meat market more generally. In the mid-16th century, the record shows shambles naming not just where meat was sold but where it was butchered: a slaughterhouse. It’s around this time shambles seems to settle into its modern spelling – and its treatment as a singular noun in a plural form.

Butchery is a messy business: it’s no surprise that the OED finds the figurative usage of shambles as a ‘scene of blood’, as it gruesomely glosses it, by the late 16th century. Such a scene can seem chaotic and confused, so, by the start of the 20th century, shambles cleaned up the gore and took on its modern sense of ‘great confusion’.

The noun shamble also inspired the adjective, shamble, ‘ungainly’, first cited in 1607 in the phrase shamble legs. One must straddle the legs to sit on a stool, hence the sort of bowleggedness of shamble. (The French bancal, literally ‘bench-legged’, shows a parallel development from its root, banc, ‘bench’.) From the adjective shamble English derives the verb to shamble and with its ‘awkward gait’. Possibly modeled on the form of symbolic, the ‘disorderly’ shambolic appears by the second half of the 20th century.

From ‘footstool’ to ‘chaos’, some might say all these changing meanings of shambles has made its life, well, a shambles – or at least wobbly like shamble legs. But I, for one, think the word has done its job well, illustrating how words are like that original shamble: stools, if you will, that prop up or provide support for all the changing ideas, needs, and realities we use language to express.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Featured Image: “Destruction in Homs” by Bo yaser. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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