Thursday, June 10, 2010

shambles--a postscript


I was bit bemused today to discover that  A. Word. A. Day is posting about the word "shambles". Zealous readers here (yeah, right) who do not have short term memory loss will realize that "shambles" came up in the course of discovering the source of the word shambolic. This can only mean one of two things: A.) A. Word. A. Day. has been methodically following this blog to come up with material, or B.) it is a complete coincidence. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

There are a couple of uh-ohs related to that post. First, your humble blogger apparently did not dig back far enough. Sure, we (eventually) got to the fact that shambles=slaughterhouse, but where did the word really come from?

According to AWAD, "shambles" actually traces its roots back to the Latin scamnum, which mean "footstool, low bench" or something like that. Gradually this evolved into a word meaning "vendor's table" and then "butcher's table". It's quite interesting, if somewhat horrific to contemplate how the word came to take on its destructive, chaotic current meaning.

The second, uh oh, though, is surprisingly AWAD's, not mine. It uses this sentence as an example: "The program aims to rebuild a system in shambles before nearly 4,000 schools were destroyed."

($2 Billion Sought to Overhaul Ruined Haiti Schools; Associated Press; May 15, 2010.)

Now, according to my sources, "in shambles" is wrong. It should be something more like "a system that was a shambles". So does usage override correctness? What say you?



63 comments:

  1. Personally, in this case I'm voting for correctness just because I have more fun saying "that was a shambles" than I do "that was in shambles". I've also picked up saying "how shambolic", and getting a funny look from a friend. All in all, my preference has nothing to do with what's proper, but more my own taste. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Glenna, you are doing much better at inserting 'shambolic' into a sentence than I am at this point. But then again, I haven't come across any shambles lately either.

    I like the progression, though. A little table or low bench turns into a butcher's table then slaughterhouse and thus into metaphor and finally wins its laurels and ends up as slang. Shambolic!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I feel for Peter...

    ReplyDelete
  4. I know. Maybe he won't check in on this one. It might just be the final straw

    Oh, and since we have you here, does "scamnum" end up contributing to modern day Italian in any way?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yes, the word "scanno" has still pretty much the same meaning of scamnum.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "In shambles" is wrong, but says who?

    Usage does not trump correctness, it is correctness. Repeat a mistake often enough, and it becomes correct. Usage is not like a game, with codified rules.

    You will notice that the example you quoted was from a journalistic account. You may remember, too, that I have sounded off from time to time about the death of copy editing and a possible resultant effect on the language.

    Notice I said effect and not decline. Whether this means our civilization is going to hell, I don't know. But it is a sign of change.
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  7. Yes, it was the journalistic aspect of the quote that I think we both thought would be the part that bothered you.

    Thanks for the clarification on usage and correctness. Considering the very wandering path the word shambles has already taken, I suppose it's just doing its own thing and not a sign of decline at all.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Well, to what extent is English or any other language a living thing, and to what extent is it an archive?

    Back when a shambles was a living presence in most people's lives, they'd have had no trouble recognizing the metaphor and using the word correctly. Today, when almost no one knows what "a shambles" is, with no examples before it, the mind understandably falls back on more usual patterns of forming expressions. Hence, "in shambles.

    I don't much like this, and there is something to be said in favor of conservatism (or is ot convervativism?) in such matters, but it's a fact, and it's understandable.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It's funny, but I am kind of inclined to like this kind of mistake. I have a lot of pet peeves about words, but they tend to be when I hear everyone picking up the same buzz words, or for some reason, abbreviation. "Call me on my cell", for instance, used to bug the hell out of me. Now, I don't really notice it. It's a case of familiarity not breeding contempt, I guess.

    ReplyDelete
  11. "Cell" as a short form for "cell phone" gets on my nerves because cell has a specific meaning in cellular communications. But most people don't know that, I think, nor do they need to. Hence the new meaning of "cell."

    I also hated "handheld" as a synonym for "handheld computer," but that never caught on. The brand names of Palm Pilot and the BlackBerry took over.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Cellular communications...oh dear. More grist for the mill here, I'm afraid.

    I kind of like what I think is the predominant British version: "Call me on my mobile" seems apt enough.

    I wonder if the echo of 'self' in 'cell' is what gets my goat. It might be.

    ReplyDelete
  13. It could have been worse. I was going to write "cellular telephony."

    A cell, as I understand it, is the area covered by each individual tower, and a cell phone works because the system passes the user from cell to cell as he or she is on the move.

    But yes, I like "mobile" better.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Back when a shambles was a living presence in most people's lives, they'd have had no trouble recognizing the metaphor and using the word correctly. Today, when almost no one knows what "a shambles" is, with no examples before it, the mind understandably falls back on more usual patterns of forming expressions. Hence, "in shambles.


    I just had to say this to you two times and now you're passing it as a personal reflection. Ever thought of a career in politics?

    Handheld perhaps didn't catch on, but laptop?

    And what about blog as abbreviation of weblog?
    Shouldn't it be wlog?

    v-word: binge

    ReplyDelete
  15. Good point about laptop and blog, Marco. I don't remember having any particular aversion to them when I heard them, but I still know enough people who are fairly mystified by what a blog is, and find the name sort of cartoonish and suspicious. And it's funny that laptop stuck, because people generally don't seem to use them that way, though of course can.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Marco, you may have said this to me a couple of times, but criminy, I think about this sort of thing every day. It's common sense, really. Besides, I never said I like "in shambles" or that I won't correct it when editing a piece of copy.

    Laptop caught on, though I'm not a fan of the expression. I wonder why I have this animus against adjectives standing in for the nouns they modify.

    "Blog" is like "copter," I suppose. Ease of pronunciation trumps "logical" abbreviation. That makes sense, too. And I'm not stealing it from you.

    Seana. I find "blog" cartoonish and suspicious. I sometimes call my blog a Web site, or site (now, there'a an interesting usage, "site" for something that has no material existence). And I sometimes prefer to say that l write about crime fiction rather than that I blog about it. Snobbery, perhaps, but accurate.
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I find the contraction of weblog into blog amusing. But I don't think I ever say "I blogged about it", as many would. I'd say, I wrote about it on my blog, or I saw it on his blog or something like that. Or at least I think that's what I do. Don't know what my aversion to blog as a verb is about really.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Millions and millions of speakers of a language, and not all will accept and use new words and expressions at the same time, as Marco probably reflected some time ago in a thought that I am unconsciously stealing.

    Editions of P.G. Wodehouse will put an apostrophe in 'phone and pro' because the abbreviated forms had not yet gained full acceptance and respectability. And books in the earlier part of the twentieth century, at least British ones, will append to to telephone when the word is a verb, as in "I will telephone to you tomorrow." If I had been born a few decades earlier, I can well imagine myself sneering and fulminating at the barbarous "I'll phone you tomorrow."
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  20. And now, a participle!
    Shambling towards Hiroshima
    (I guess the title's a play on Slouching Towards Bethlehem)

    ReplyDelete
  21. Unless shamble as a verb is a portmanteau of shuffle and amble.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Interestingly, shambling seems to be just another path taken from that original shambles or butcher's bench, at least according to the Online Etymological dictionary, which makes the case that the awkward, shuffling gate comes either from the splay-legged table or the way one was forced to sit astride it. (Kind of makes me want to see one in use in one of those re-enactment villages, though as its a butcher's bench, maybe not.)I had thought shambling might just be a mistake following from a mistake, but apparently not, and apparently it's not recent either. Merriam-Webster giving a date as early as 1592.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I wonder what the OED has on shamble as a verb. And I wonder to what extent a word's acceptance and even meaning will be influences by words of a similar sounds: shamble, shuffle, amble, ramble, stumble, and so on.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Just noticed "guesstimate" used on the news in exactly that sort of way tonight.

    ReplyDelete
  25. 0h, geez. I hate that one.

    Why? It's a perfectly locical portmanteau. You use it when you have not enough information for a careful estimate, and yet you feel you can make more than a blind guess.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I agree with both of you. It's a nice portmanteau word, but it also can be irritating because it sounds too cute or flip or sloppy or something.

    ReplyDelete
  27. 0h, geez. I hate that one.

    Why?


    Because. Oddly enough, brunch never bothered me. But maybe it will start to.

    it also can be irritating because it sounds too cute or flip

    That's right!==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  28. Nice use of "shambles" in the Guardian's as-it-happened report on today's England-Germany game at the World Cup:

    "20 mins: KLOSE'S NUMBER 12!!! Germany 1-0 England. Dear Lord. Neuer hoofs a long ball upfield, straight down the middle. Terry is off on holiday, Upson was standing wondering whether to go with him, maybe stow away in his suitcase, and so Klose simply romps down the middle, sliding in and poking a right-foot shot past the advancing James and into the bottom-right corner. That is as simple a goal that's been scored in the entire history of All Football. What a defensive shambles."
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  29. And another:

    33 min: ANOTHER GOAL!!! Germany 2-0 England. And another defensive shambles

    ReplyDelete
  30. Actually, that first is a very nice paragraph. And funny too, unless you happen to be England. I think the shambles on the field is nothing to the shambles those defensive players are going to find waiting for them off it. Possibly not so metaphoric.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Those as-it-happens commentaries are often similarly enjoyable even if one is not a soccer fan. The English enjoy a reputation for showing off their wit, a fortunate thing in this case.

    ReplyDelete
  32. They look enjoyable, but following a game I wouldn't watch otherwise just for the witty commentary is going a bit far, even for me.

    ReplyDelete
  33. The Internet lets you enjoy the wit minus the game!

    V-word: logic

    ReplyDelete
  34. Logical yes, but I think a few choice gems would be enough for me. Although I have to say that watching the Oscars was much more enjoyable followed on the internet. I think it was on Slate. Wouldn't do it any other way in the future.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Yes, perhaps the Internet has some potential, after all.

    ReplyDelete
  36. I think eventually it may catch on.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Frim the Guardian:

    "The French Football Federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes says it is his 'duty' to resign after France's shambolic World Cup showing "

    For anyone who has followed this World Cup even casually, no further illustration is necessary.

    ReplyDelete
  38. To excoriate the French with British slang is truly adding insult to injury.

    Yes, even the casual non-observer of the World Cup is aware that France is undergoing a crisis of faith. I still don't actually understand why football tranfers into government crises, but I see that it does.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Did you see where Sarkozy even called in Thierry Henry (the player whose illegal handling of the ball deprived Ireland of a place in the World Cup) for a conference? Can you imagine such a thing happening in Ameerica?

    And now the president of soccer's world governing body is threatening to kick France out because of political interference. This story just keeps getting better.

    ReplyDelete
  40. I did happen to read about Thierry Henry for some reason. And I also came across this interesting piece by Daniel Drezner about his reluctance to see America go totally wild about soccer, partly because of the meltdown of the French leadership.

    ReplyDelete
  41. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  42. I don't think he need fear that an American philosopher will be taken seriously in mass American media any time soon.

    ReplyDelete
  43. An entertaining variant from -- where else? -- the Guardian:

    "Nigerians found a penny when their last president died and now all term long they'll have Goodluck. And that's bad news for the country's footballers. Or maybe it isn't. Because in addition to being president and the holder of degrees in fisheries and philosophy, Dr Goodluck Jonathan is a qualified zoologist – and has diagnosed the Super Eagles as suffering from chronic shamblesness."

    ReplyDelete
  44. Shamblesness might be going a bit too far.

    At first I was trying to tie his statement to the fact of his being a zoologist, but I guess it actually wasn't a diagnosis.

    ReplyDelete
  45. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  46. Shambleness is a shambolic word, isn't it?

    ReplyDelete
  47. Shambleness I could almost buy, but shamblesness is really just a bit too awkward.

    ReplyDelete
  48. You have tapped something deep in the Anglo-American zeitgeist. One of the Guardian's minute-by-minute reports on the World Cup today included a lengthy discussion of the extent to which shambles and shambolic had or lacked currency in American speech.

    ReplyDelete
  49. You heard it here first, Peter. Or actually, I guess you heard it there first. In any case, I wonder if, as soccer seems destined to grow bigger here, 'shambolic' will finally leap the gap.

    ReplyDelete
  50. Not sure if anyone will see this way down here, but I'm pleased to say that Harper Lee, or at least her editors got 'shambles' right. Here's the relevant passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, about a neighbor's yard, the morning after a fire.

    "Miss Maudie puzzled me. With most of her possessions gone and her beloved yard a shambles, she still took a lively and cordial interest in Jem's and my affairs."

    ReplyDelete
  51. Shows how much things have gone to hell in the lst fifty years.

    ReplyDelete
  52. Shows how much things have gone to hell in the lst fifty years.

    ReplyDelete
  53. The rational, calm side of me says that we are witness to a small piece of language change since "To Kill a Mockingbird." But the storming, self-pitying romantic side doesn't have to listen to the rational, calm side.

    ReplyDelete
  54. Well, it's good to have both. Especially in the current climate.

    ReplyDelete
  55. Let me work on a third, practical side, and I'll get back to you.

    ReplyDelete
  56. If you can market the practical side, I'd be interested in buying stock.

    ReplyDelete
  57. Knowing how to market a practical side would constitute evidence of a practical side, so if I had it, I'd already know how to market it.

    ReplyDelete
  58. Sorry, but I have just spent four days with my brother, decidedly the practical one in the family, so I argue from an especially strong position.

    ReplyDelete