Thursday, June 16, 2011


Well, hopefully this will be a short one. To me, 'ramshackle' means put together with no thought or plan, not cohesive, and definitely not up to code. I may turn out to be wrong about that, but even if  I'm right, I'd really like to know where such a great word comes from. Let's find out.


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


  1. Apparently this word is a "lexical orphan".


  2. Oh, the poor little thing. I will have to use it more often. I liked the comment at the link that the word has probably been influenced by the word 'shack'.

  3. So a ramshackle house may be a (not "in") shambles.

    The word apparently has gone through a slight semantic change on its way from its origins. I think of ramshackle as a passive state, something into which a building has decayed throught neglect, but ransack denotes a more active process.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Yes, I found the transition interesting, just as I did the transition from searching a house to what we now think of as ransacking a house.

    But although I really had no idea where the word came from, I did not have the feeling it had anything to do with rams or shackles, as apparently some folk etymology does.

  5. That's an interesting bit of music, a bluegrass-classical hybrid, at least at the beginning.

  6. Yeah, I kind of liked it, although I think it probably goes on a bit too long.

  7. Well, I was thinking more along the lines that it gets a bit tedious.