July 20, 2016

Case File #016.07.20: SHAMBLES

If you think of a slaughterhouse or a butchery as a place of confusion or disorder, then you probably won't be surprised to learn that the word shambles, which generally means “a state of complete disorder or ruin,” evolved from a Middle English word that meant “meat market.” But most etymologists and lexicographers say the roots of shambles ultimately wind back to the Sanskrit skambha, a word that meant “pillar” or “supporting member” and was in no way associated with the butchering of animals. So how did an ancient architectural term that evoked the idea of stability evolve into a word associated with carnage and chaos? Well, Sanskrit's skambha eventually passed into Latin as scamnum, which meant “bench,” and Old English speakers took the diminutive form of the Latin—scamillus, that is, meaning “little bench” or “pedestal”—Anglicized it to sceamel (sometimes spelling it scamol or scomul), and used it to mean “a table for vending.” When Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, sceamel became shamel (the spelling varied greatly), and the word was by then used solely in reference to marketplace tables from which fish or meat was sold. Sometime around the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, the word's form evolved to become shambil, and its plural, shambiles, passed into Early Modern English as sheambles but was used as a singular noun meaning “meat market.” The modern form shambles finally appeared around 1550, at which time the word also came to mean “slaughterhouse” (a sense that is now essentially archaic except in the case of place names), and the figurative sense of “a place of carnage or great bloodshed” soon followed and became commonplace by 1595. The noun's contemporary sense (that is, “a condition of complete confusion, disarray, or ruin”) didn't come until much later, however, making its debut in print circa 1900. By the way, the verb shamble, which means “to move with an awkward and slow or shuffling gait,” first appeared in the English lexicon around 1700, though experts are divided as to whether it is etymologically related to the noun shambles: many say yes, asserting that shamble harks back to the usually bowed legs of the trestle tables used at meat markets in days of yore; others say no, claiming the evidence more cogently suggests that the verb's development followed a course from a now unknown bygone—and likely dialectical—word meaning something like “clumsy” or “ungainly.”

©2016 Michael R. Gates

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