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Sunday, May 17, 2015

In (a) shambles

Well, I'd better post something before you all get concerned about what has happened to me. I know you have probably been spending every waking moment thinking, "Where's Wordlady? I'm worried! Maybe her life is in a shambles, and that's why she's not posting anymore."

Or would you say, "Her life is in shambles"?

And anyway, where does the word "shamble(s)" come from, and what is/are it/they?

I had cause to think about this on reading something described as being "in shambles", the same sort of construction as "in ruins" or "in tatters". Being the dispassionate descriptivist that I am, my immediate reaction was, "Well, that's just WRONG! It should be 'in A shambles'."

But then, being the dispassionate descriptivist that I am, I thought I'd better look into it before making any intemperate pronouncements.

"Shambles" has a long history, dating all the way back to the Latin word scamellum, a diminutive of scamnum (bench). This was borrowed into the Germanic languages even before the Anglo-Saxons set sail for Britain in the 5th century. A "scammel" (pronounced "shammle") was a stool, and subsequently a shop counter. 

By the 14th century, now spelled "shammel" to reflect its pronunciation, the word was being applied specifically to a market stall for selling meat or fish.  Since markets usually have several of these in one place, the plural form started to refer to a meat market: "a shammels". 

The shambles in the city of York
About the same time, the intrusive "b" found its way into the word, to make the phonetic transition from "m" to "l" easier. This phenomenon also happened with the words "crumble", "nimble", "thimble", "bramble", "mumble", and others.

By the 1500s, a "shambles" was a slaughterhouse, and not long after that, we see the word being used figuratively to mean "a place of carnage":  

The First World War, creating a pressing need for synonyms for "bloodbath", gave new life to the figurative use of the word. Descriptions of battle scenes inevitably included connotations of general disorder, and by the early twenties, "shambles" started to be used of scenes of chaos and devastation, whether or not carnage was involved. There was some criticism of this weakening of the word at the time, but as always, usage wins out, so that "disorder" is now the dominant, and perhaps only sense of the word.

Since, as we have seen before, English speakers just don't like singular words ending in -s, "in shambles" has also overtaken "in a shambles", as you can see (keep scrolling after the chart):
https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=was+in+shambles%2Cwas+in+a+shambles&year_start=1920&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cwas%20in%20shambles%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cwas%20in%20a%20shambles%3B%2Cc0




So I should just get over my objection, and accept that saying "in shambles" is just as legitimate as "in a shambles", which is, in fact, the loser in this competition. What do YOU say? Please let me know.

Although the "disorder" sense of "shambles" was a North American development, the British have taken things one step further, creating the adjective "shambolic" sometime in the sixties. It surprises me that this has not yet really caught on this side of the Atlantic.

By the way, no need to worry about the state of my life. I've just been off escorting ballet lovers to Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and New York.

My life is not in a shambles. (There, you see, I just cannot bring myself to say "in shambles".)

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the state of my housekeeping.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.