Tuesday, May 25, 2010


As I have mentioned here a time or two before, one of the criteria of topic selection for this blog is when a word or concept comes up a couple of times over a brief span of time, and I have to admit to myself not once but twice or more that I really don't know anything about it. The first instance is very likely to go by the wayside, but when I see it again, I pretty much surrender to the gods of knowledge, or whatever the opposite of ignorance really is.

While reading Adrian McKinty's The Lighthouse Land recently, I came across a passage that included today's featured word. Now, as this book is geared toward the middle grades or young adults, I was kind of surprised to find a word I didn't know contained within it, though being as it's this particular author, not all that surprised. But I was more puzzled when yesterday, I came across it again in a book which looks to be a charming but fairly frothy sort of novel, called The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise, by one Julia Stuart, which is about life at the modern day Tower of London. What's worse is that here are two instances where context did not actually help me figure out the word at all.

Of course I can't find that word in The Lighthouse Land again. I can't even remember which setting it refers to, which would help me narrow down its location in the book a lot. But its context is in a sentence something along the lines of, "The land was desolate, shambolic and wild." The sentence from the Stuart book is more ready to hand: "[the raven] arrived at the man's feet following a shambolic flight due to its wings having been clipped to prevent it absconding." I am sure some if not all of you reading here already know the meaning of this word, but if you didn't, how would you deduce a common meaning for a word used to describe a wilderness landscape and the impaired flight of a raven?

If it was just the raven, I might venture erratic, clumsy, staggering. If it was just the land, I would think maybe primitive, undeveloped. Maybe the closest I can come to a link between these uses is 'inelegant'. God, I have no idea. What's worse is that the word 'shambala' keeps creeping in from some corner of my mind, and as my supposition has been that this is some kind of Buddhist term, as it is the name of an iconic publishing house of Buddhist texts for the West, this seems unlikely. And yet it's very tempting to think it might be related. Time to concede defeat, I think...

Well, first off, shambala and shambolic are apparently completely unconnected, which is something of a relief. Shambala, as I now vaguely remember, is a hidden, mythical Tibetan kingdom, an idea that was attractive to the West as Buddhism became known here and resulted (probably) in popularizations of the idea in books like James Hinton's Lost Horizon, with its mythical Shangri-La.

'Shambala' has many more meanings than that, though, and frankly some of them are way too esoteric for this humble blogger, so I'll leave you to your own devices on that. Shambolic, however, is right up my alley. It's British slang, which explains why it's not especially familiar to me, and means 'chaotic or disorderly'. It's comes from 'shambles', as in the phrase 'in shambles', and as some dictionaries have mentioned, probably owes a lot to 'symbolic' for its structure.

Well, there you have it. I'm sure that British school children will soon be laughing scornfully at my ignorance of this (for them) utterly common word. Well, go for it, British school children. I've been laughed at by better. But after you've regaled yourself, take a look at The Lighthouse Trilogy. It's a good series that will make for some fun summer reading. For you, it should even be easy.

(And don't worry, American kids--I have just guided you past the only real obstacle to your complete comprehension.)


  1. N Ireland is a rural place and quite a few people will have some connection with a farm. Maybe the younger generation wont know what a "shambles" actually is but most people around my age do. Its a nice gruesome image.

  2. Uh oh. I think I thought my ignorance was cured in this instance. What is a shambles exactly? I realize that because that is a word that has translated into our vernacular, I assumed I knew what it meant, but I find that I, well, don't.

  3. Thanks for that. That part has not crossed over with the rest of the word, at least it was never my understanding of it.

  4. I didn't know that 'shambles' wasn't a universally understood word for chaotic - my own C of I!

    The older, lost meaning of 'butcher's' still survives in old towns like York where the 'Shambles' is the street where the medieval butcher's shops all were. Indeed the older medieval towns in Ulster had them too - like the now-lost place names in Bangor, Downpatrick and of course, Carrickfergus!

    I'm sure it is only a coincidence, but the causeway road from behind Whitehead onto Islandmagee (the general setting of 'Lighthouse Land') runs across 'Slaughterford Bridge'. But the slaughter here was of people rather than animals.

  5. No, you were right, Philip, the current meaning of shambles is universally understood, at least in English. It's just that the word shambolic isn't in common usage in the U.S. and I don't think many people know the darker origins of the word. I asked a friend of mine tonight, whose mother is actually English though she isn't, if she knew these words, just to make sure it wasn't my own lapse, and she didn't.

    I did notice that shambolic has taken on a new meaning in computer lingo, so maybe the techie types who live nearby do have more of a sense of that one.

  6. Shambleau wasn't really shambolic, but she could well leave you in shambles.

    My v-word, gatoro, is a Japanese movie about a giant mutated creature hiding in a Louisiana swamp.

  7. The Shambles in York (where I lived for a year) is the most photographed timber-framed street in England. It is so narrow that the overhanging upper floors almost touch from facing sides. The tourist-trap shop windows still have rows of meat-hanging hooks along the front.

    I didn't know the butcher connection with the street name until then, for I knew of lots of old 'Shambles' streets at home. They are all old, narrow and twisty, and I thought they were called Shambles because of their chaotic appearance. But every single one was originally the street for butchers' shops. There is still a Shambles Entry in Cavan, a Shambles and Fish market in Derry and a Shambles Lane in Monaghan.

    As kids if we left our room in a real mess, my mum would say it "looks like Paddy's market", or with more modern idiom "you'd think a bomb had hit this place".

    A modern mom would say it was 'shambolic'.

  8. Marco, I don't know that story, nor the author. It's a good name, though.

    I do have to say that if gatoro is hanging out in a Louisiana swamp right now, his days may be numbered.

  9. Philip, I think my original sense of 'shambling' had more to do with the image you give of those streets than of anything related to butchers. So I wonder if the word has come to carry both the butcher's aspect and the actual feel of those streets in it. We'd say, "It's a shambles!" meaning it's a wreck, a mess, a disaster, but "a shambling lane" would connote something quaint and picturesque. Maybe 'shambolic' came into existence because 'shambling' had lost some of its power to signify destruction.

  10. Yes, shambling doesn't work as an adjective, maybe because we use 'shamble' (here anyway) as a verb to mean 'shuffle along', and definitely 'shambling' has that sense to me. On the other hand 'shambolic' as an adjective looks like it has come from a conflation with 'chaotic'.

  11. Seana,

    Your blog is very, very interesting. I also understood shambles to mean unorganized, as in "The house in shambles". Now that I am in the know, can I interpret Peter Doherty's now defunct band "Baby Shambles" to actually mean "Baby Slaughterhouse"? If so, he's rather clever, but I think the Beatles beat him to it with The original cover of "Yesterday and Today"

  12. Thanks for popping over, Sean! I think a lot the interest derives from the more informed vistors who are gracious enough to comment. And speaking of that, we'll have to hope that Marco stops back by to answer your music questions, as of course, it's yet another area of vast ignorance for me...

  13. Seana,

    I have been lurking about your blog, but figured I needed to get in the game.

  14. Sean, of all the blogs you frequent in this little corner of the blogosphere, I assure you this one has the least reason to be intimidating. Well, except for maybe some of the commenters. Anyway, thanks for delurking.

  15. Philip, I was thinking shambolic might have hints of diabolic as well.

  16. Diabolical too, yes. I was thinking about the other things my mother used to call the mess we made besides 'shambles', 'Paddy's market' and 'you'd think a bomb had hit this place'. Her other favorite comment was 'it looks like a battlefield'.

    Apart from remembering how messy we must have been, the battlefield allusion reminded me of how often the carnage amid the disorganised chaos of the WWI trenches was called 'a shambles' at the time.

    Maybe that was the missing etymological link?

  17. Interesting. Shambles = slaughterhouse = a mess with guts everywhere. Makes sense to me :)

  18. Philip, I somehow missed that last comment before and it makes sense to me that the carnage of trench warfare might have been where a word meaning slaughterhouse would have passed over into describing other things. And of course now I'm thinking of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and sort of seeing that title anew because of this.

  19. Glenna, if I take anything at all away from recent discussions, it's to remember to say "it's a shambles" not "it's in shambles", unless I want to refer to something that happens to be in my neighborhood slaughterhouse.

    And I'm definitely going to say "Shambolic!" a whole lot more. Anything to add to my general mystique.

  20. Hahaha...I had the same thought!

  21. Val McDermid during her interview of Denise Mina, Bouchercon 2010’s international guest of honor:

    “You give us Paddy Meehan, whose life is at best shambolic.”
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  22. Wonder how many Americans there knew what that was that meant. They probably had a pretty good idea if they had read Mina's books. Otherwise?

    I haven't gotten on to Mina yet, to my shame.