Thursday, June 16, 2011
The free dictionary has it as "so poorly constructed or kept up that disintegration is likely." Pretty much my thoughts. But here's what's interesting. 'Ramshackle' is actually a back-formation, which, in case you don't know (as I didn't until taking up this blog) is when you create a new word by analogy from an already existing word, falsely assuming that that is its source. For example:
"Stripping the in- from inchoate is known as back-formation, the same process that has given us words like peeve (from peevish), surveil (from surveillance) and enthuse (from enthusiasm). There’s a long linguistic tradition of removing parts of words that look like prefixes and suffixes to come up with 'roots' that weren’t there to begin with."
(Ben Zimmer, "Choate." The New York Times, Jan. 3, 2010)
So in case you thought 'ramshackle' had anything to do with rams or shackles, well, it doesn't. 'Ramshackle' is a back-formation of 'ramshackled' which is an alteration of 'ranshackle', which in turn comes from 'ransackle'.
Starting to sound familiar? The original word is 'ransack', which comes from Old Norse rannsaka 'to pillage', but more literally to search (saka) the house (rann). I'm going to take the original meaning of 'ramshackle', then, to mean--what a house looks like after it has been pillaged...
I've been slacking a bit on thinking outside the box with these so let's end with a little video from a little group called