The Grammarphobia Blog

On the shambolic side

Q: All of a sudden, I’m seeing the word “shambolic” nearly every day in the NY Times. It’s being used to mean messy or disorganized, apparently as an adjectival version of “shambles.” What’s going on here?

A: You’re right. The word “shambolic” has shown up a lot lately in the Times—in recent weeks, for example, to describe the messy starts of both Obamacare and the Brooklyn Nets’ basketball season.

But this usage is nothing new. A search of the Times archive indicates that the word has appeared in the paper hundreds of times since William Safire first mentioned it in a March 4, 1984, On Language column.

“Of late,” Safire noted in the Times Magazine column, “our British cousins have taken to using an adjective: shambolic.”

At the time, he said, the word hadn’t appeared in any standard dictionaries. Since then, a half-dozen dictionaries in the US and the UK have included it as a slang, colloquial, or informal usage.

Lexicographers usually describe “shambolic” as a chiefly British adjective, and define it as messy, disorganized, or chaotic.

A search of Google News confirms that the word is primarily seen in British publications, though it appears to be catching on among linguistic Anglophiles in the American news media.

The earliest citation for “shambolic” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the June 18, 1970, issue of the Times of London:

“His office in Printing House Square is so impeccably tidy that it is … a standing reproach to the standard image of shambolic newspaper offices.”

Oxford describes “shambolic” as colloquial, and defines it as “chaotic, disorderly, undisciplined.” It suggests that the word may have been influenced by the adjective “symbolic.”

The OED cites a report that the word was “in common use” in 1958, but the dictionary doesn’t identify a source.

In a search of Google Books, we found a 1952 example from The Tank magazine. A description of dancers at a party remarks that “in truth one must admit there were those among us who were somewhat on the shambolic side.”

The word “shambolic,” as you’ve suggested, is derived from the noun “shambles,” which showed up in Old English in the 800s as a singular word for a footstool and later a table for selling goods.

By the early 1300s, according to OED citations, the noun “shamble” (schamil in Middle English) referred to “a table or stall for the sale of meat.”

In the 1400s, English speakers began using the word in the plural for a butcher shop or a meat market. And in the 1500s, the plural was used for a slaughterhouse.

By the late 1500s, Oxford says, the word “shambles” came to mean “a place of carnage or wholesale slaughter; a scene of blood.”

In the early 20th century, according to the OED, the word “shambles” took on its modern sense of “a scene of disorder or devastation; a ruin; a mess.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of this new usage is from Microbe Hunters, a 1926 bestseller by the microbiologist Paul Henry de Kruif: “Once more his laboratory became a shambles of cluttered flasks and hurrying assistants.”

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