Correcting my limitless lack of knowledge, one post at a time.
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.)