A couple of years ago, in this thread, Gilbert Wesley Purdy wrote of the word shambles (which came up in Betty Kirkpatrick’s discussion of the Scots word boorach, which she defined as “mess” and “shambles” as if they were equivalent): “To me the most interesting fact here is that neither Kirkpatrick nor at least one of the commenters would seem to have the vaguest idea what a ‘shambles’ is. Of course, ‘boorach’ could never properly come to mean ‘a shambles’.” When John Cowan pointed out that “A shambles has been a mess, per the OED2, since at least 1926,” GWP responded, “Exactly, JC. Of course, while most of the English speakers in the world do not remember what ‘a shambles’ actually is, it might be worthy of clarification when students of the language-group do not remember.” I ran across the word today in a text I was editing, which talked about a theater being “in a shambles” after a revolution; I wanted to delete “in,” but realized that that was because my antiquarian mind retained the image of a shambles as an actual building (specifically, a slaughterhouse), and current usage was very different, which I confirmed with a quick straw poll and expect to further confirm in this thread. I also agree with GWP that the history of the word’s usage is worthy of clarification. So I’ll clarify it, and then turn the floor over to the assembled multitudes.
In brief, a shambles (plural in form, treated as singular) was originally a meat market (etymologically, it’s the plural of Middle English schamel ‘vendor’s table, footstool,’ from Old English sceamol ‘stool,’ from Latin scamillum, diminutive of scamnum ‘stool’); it was then used for a slaughterhouse, which is its earliest meaning that is within even vaguely current memory. The metaphorical extension was originally to “place of mass bloodshed” (e.g., a battlefield) and then to “scene of great destruction” (a city after being bombed), and finally our weak modern “mess.” Here are some representative OED citations:
2. †a. In Old English, a table or counter for exposing goods for sale, counting money, etc. Obs.
b. spec. A table or stall for the sale of meat.
1577 V. Leigh Science Surueying D iij b, And in like maner of profites of Bothes, standinges, shambles and tolles or other profits of a wekely market..kept within.
3. a. pl. A place where meat (or occas. fish) is sold, a flesh- or meat-market. ? Now local.
a1410 in York Myst. Introd. 24 (note), All the folks of the salsemaker crafte..without the Flesshchameles.
1636 R. Basset Lives Rom. Emperors 64 He was called of many Macellinus, of the Latine word Macellum a shambles, or butchery.
4. a. pl. The place where animals are killed for meat; a slaughter-house.
1548 N. Udall et al. tr. Erasmus Paraphr. Newe Test. I. John x. 1–5 They bee called to their foode, and not to the fleshe shambles to be killed.
1607 B. Jonson Volpone i. i. 35, I..fat no beasts To feede the shambles.
1726 Swift It cannot rain but it Pours, A Flock of Sheep, that were driving to the Shambles.
1841 Dickens Barnaby Rudge lxxi. 354 He was felled like an ox in the butcher’s shambles.
And in metaphorical senses:
5. a. A place of carnage or wholesale slaughter; a scene of blood.
1641 J. Jackson True Evangelical Temper i. 48 That it may appeare indeed, what bloud-hounds the Papists are, what a Shambles their Church is, consult a grand Witnesse of their own.
1794 S. T. Coleridge Fall Robespierre i. i. 79 I’ve fear’d him, since his iron heart endured To make of Lyons one vast human shambles.
1901 ‘Linesman’ Words by Eyewitness ix. 177 What a shambles the deep valley between Inkweloane and Spitz Kop would have been!
b. pl. In more general use, a scene of disorder or devastation; a ruin; a mess. orig. U.S.
1926 P. H. de Kruif Microbe Hunters iii. iv. 83 Once more his laboratory became a shambles of cluttered flasks and hurrying assistants.
1942 E. Waugh Put Out More Flags ii. 150 Alastair learned, too, that all schemes ended in a ‘shambles’ which did not mean, as he feared, a slaughter, but a brief restoration of individual freedom of movement.
1966 M. R. D. Foot SOE in France viii. 184 Helped the commandos to make a thorough shambles of the main dockyard.
1979 Daily Tel. 5 Sept. 6/6 Haiti remains a dictatorship, its economy in a shambles.
So that’s the history. (Don’t miss the splendid Evelyn Waugh quote from 1942!) Now for the poll: do you prefer to say a very messy place is “a shambles,” “in a shambles,” or “in shambles”?