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”?


  1. “In shambles.” Wasn’t so sure about “in a shambles,” though, although google seems to favor it.
    20y/o, West Coast.

  2. I knew the meat market meaning from a bible-reading childhood (thanks, King James!), thankfully. When it comes to whether I’d say “a shambles” or “in a shambles”, my idiolect is itself slightly shambolic. I think there’s an 80% chance I’d say “a shambles”, with “in a shambles” not sounding off or weird. I have never said or heard “in shambles” before reading this post.

  3. I believe I grew up with both “in a shambles” and “a shambles” (and later learned that the word literally means a slaughterhouse–but that was one of those bits of knowledge for the know-it-all trivia collector). The variant “in shambles” is new to me.

  4. And you can walk with a shambling gait.

  5. “A shambles” for me (south-eastern English) mostly, I think, but “in a shambles” does not sound wrong, though “in shambles” does.
    In BrE we have “shambolic”, “chaotic, disorderly, undisciplined”, found only, apparently, from 1970 onwards, which a quick Google News search finds today only in British, Canadian, Irish and NZ sources, suggesting that this is one BrE expression yet to land in the US.

  6. marie-lucie says

    I think I would say “a shambles” which is what I am used to hearing.
    I would not use “a mess” as a true synonym, as I think of “a shambles” as much more serious and chaotic. A room which is a mess could have a bunch of things in it which should have been organized or put away but were just left here and there at random. “A mess” could also describe a kitchen after a party, and could include some spilled liquids. On the other hand, for me “a shambles” would be more disorganized, with even some destruction: in the aftermath of a severe flood, hurricane, tornado, etc a previously neat and orderly house could be “left a shambles” with furniture overturned and broken, windows shattered, etc and even walls or roof destroyed.

  7. 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’)
    The OED says in particular: “a Com. WGer. adoption of L. scamellum”. Schemel is the current good ol’ German word for stool.

  8. “A shambles”, definitely, but I agree with Marie-Lucie’s distinctions.
    “Shambolic link” is technical slang (probably originally U.S.) for a still-existing link to a file (or by extension a Web page) that no longer exists, punning on the standard term “symbolic link”.

  9. “In a shambles” sounds to me like a confusion of “in shambles”, which I have always used to mean “in dilapidated, decrepit condition”. Images of scattered grey shingles on a collapsed roof like cliff-side shale. 27 y/o, Southern California.

  10. I’d probably say “in shambles” before “a shambles” and “in a shambles” not at all, but I don’t think i’d hear any of them as wrong. Shambolic works too, although I might be startled to see it in a newspaper. But a shambles is no mere mess, and something in shambles is falling to pieces either literally or metaphorically. I don’t remember when or where I learned that the phrase referred to a slaughterhouse, I’d probably have guessed it was here.

  11. (28, Chicago)

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I’d probably say “it’s a shambles”, but it’s one of those examples in which the more I think about it the less sure I am of what I actually say.

  13. My brother and I were taken by our mother to the The Shambles in Manchester for our first photograph; for us it was an area of streets, with perhaps one particular one. We saw all the shops and stalls, with live animals. Our father was by profession, proud profession, a slaughterman and butcher, and knew the area well. For me the word was probably a collective, but I could use a 3psg or 3ppl present tense after it. In the sense of a ‘mess’ it’s always a 3psg. See Wikipediaa:,_Manchester

  14. Omnishambles is a new-ish and fun word. And some fun was had earlier this year with Romneyshambles.

  15. “It’s a shambles”. Somewhere in childhood or youth I learned its butchery origins and ever since I’ve inwardly grinned when someone has referred to “a bloody shambles”.

  16. Anyone who has lived in York will know this:
    I like “shambolic” — a cheeky greekification

  17. (UK) “a shambles” or “in a shambles”, never heard of “in shambles”. – so, as per stuart and ø …

  18. Actually, the difference between ‘a shambles’ and ‘in a shambles’ seems pretty much parallel to that between ‘a mess’ and ‘in a mess’:
    This room’s a mess!
    This rooms in a mess!

  19. It looks like the Brits say “a shambles” and the Americans “in shambles.” Californian here to say that I’ve never heard a fellow Californian say “a shambles.”

  20. Yes, “in shambles” is pretty clearly U.S.
    the difference between ‘a shambles’ and ‘in a shambles’ seems pretty much parallel to that between ‘a mess’ and ‘in a mess’
    I’m not familiar with “in a mess”; don’t know if that’s related to geography or codgerdom.
    I like “shambolic” — a cheeky greekification
    It is indeed a wonderful word.

  21. There’s nothing wrong with ‘in a shambles’.
    There’s a band called Babyshambles, nostalgically named after the British 1950s champagne-like (assuming you have no taste buds) girls’ pear-juice drink called Babycham. Babyshambles must be quite well-known if I have heard of them.
    Did you know you have a Tory name? Your Tory name is your grandfather’s first name, combined with the name of the street where you grew up hyphenated with your headmaster’s last name. It doesn’t really work if you grew up on, say, W.115th Street.
    I expect nearly everyone knows by now that Omnishables was coined by Armando Ianucci, channeled through his character Malcolm Tucker.

  22. Interesting perspectives here. For me:
    “in a shambles” nearly equivalent to “a shambles”, both perfectly acceptable
    *”in shambles”
    “a mess” preferable to ??”in a mess”
    When I read the title of this post, before reading any of the body, the first phrase that popped into my head was “in a shambles”, so I would have to say that is the preferred form for me.

  23. Hmm. You can’t say “Things are really in a mess around here”, Hat? I definitely can, and I’m only eleven years less codgy than you. I’d say the mess is more likely to be figurative in this case.

  24. marie-lucie says

    I think I would say “The kitchen is a mess” if it was dirty, dishes all over the place, etc but “We are in a mess” if we are in an apparently insolvable situation. At least I think that’s what people around me would say (and I am older than either of you).

  25. Up here in Aotearoa, “a mess” and “in a mess” are about as interchangeable as “in a shambles” and “a shambles”, for both literal and non-literal uses, I suspect.

  26. Hmm. You can’t say “Things are really in a mess around here”, Hat?
    Nope, but then I can’t say “It was really fun,” either. (Fun for me is basically a noun; I can say “It was fun,” which preserves ambiguity [cf. “It was sheer delight”], but I can’t add an adverb.) Like I say, I have an antiquarian mind, and it’s not purely a function of my birth year.

  27. Trond Engen says

    Hat: 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’)
    Stu: The OED says in particular: “a Com. WGer. adoption of L. scamellum”. Schemel is the current good ol’ German word for stool.
    Norw. skammel “footstool” is borrowed from German (but interestingly in the second tone).
    dearieme: I’ve inwardly grinned when someone has referred to “a bloody shambles”
    If I may play the rogue semanticist again, I’d say that such an idiom could actually be the context for the semantic shift of ‘bloody’.

  28. Looks like the etymology of Russian “скамья,” bench, too.

  29. “Shambolic” was used in many of the articles in the ‘New Music Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ from 1977, it seems to be only in British usage, it had not caught on in AmEng.

  30. I can see m-l’s careful distinction, but I would still use the two pretty much interchangeably. Maybe another regional thing? In the case of ‘in a mess’, I think the notion behind it is one of ‘being in a messy state’.

  31. “shambolic”
    there is a funny expression in my language ” shombolun daind mordokh” – to go mobilizing to the war for shambala (shangri-la) meaning doing something meaningless and fruitless, a is substituted for o as if like to show the incorrect mistaken spell of the word, as if like someone illiterate would use the word that way
    another funny expression is “gevch xuvs’gal yalj chotgoriin too tsoorson ym gene lee” – “but the revolution has won by then and the number of devils, they say, had significantly decreased” , it’s used to end a story which is too unbelievable to believe or just instead of happy ending
    both expressions i guess are remnants of the anti-religious
    propaganda during the socialist times, they have something like “pochem opium dlya naroda” feeling, too funny and are still popular having lost their anti-religious context

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    That 1977 Encyclopedia of Rock is probably the book from which I learned “eponymous” (which came up on a recent LL thread), but I can’t specifically remember picking up “shambolic” there. But that reminds me that there’s an excellent use of “shambles” in the last verse of “The Rover” (Led Zeppelin, 1975), with, after it being noted that our time is flying and the candle is burning low, there is a semi-post-hippie vision of the potentiality of “the new world rising / From the shambles of the old / If we could just join hands.” And thence into the outro.

  33. “the new world rising / From the shambles of the old / If we could just join hands.”
    No wonder punk came along.
    I remember learning eponymous, in 5th century Greek history at school, because of the eponymous archon.

  34. Read, I want to adopt both your expressions into my vocabulary (in English). They’re cynically delicious. Maybe “Enlisting for the Shangri-La wars”? The other will be more difficult to work into a catchphrase. I’ll just have to wait for the right occasion.

  35. thanks, nbm, i think in english maybe there are similar expressions, something like sisyphus work, about the decreasing number of devils in connection with the revolution, that’s perhaps our own specifics, true 🙂

  36. marie-lucie says

    JWB: the outro, the opposite of the intro. I like it. Perhaps the metro is the part in the middle?

  37. it’s called sisyphean task i read now, not work
    shombolun dain is nothing like punishment, it’s something about believing in something foolish, imaginary and get so inspired by it that one gets ready to go to the war for its sake, so maybe it’s something closer to fighting with windmills

  38. Trond Engen says

    Your first description made me think of fighting windmills and quixotic rather than sisyphean. Could it be both? Though ‘fighting windmills’ probably isn’t what it used to be anymore.

  39. marie-lucie says

    fighting windmills: I think the more common phrase is tilting at windmills.

  40. there it’s just foolish cz everybody knows that there is no such a thing like imaginary country shambala to go fight for it, so maybe it’s closest to something like building communism now, again it’s kinda like our specifics, to look for the similar expressions in english, fighting windmills is closer to it for its foolishness and that it’s voluntary and sincere mistake i guess

  41. I wonder if this was the first occurrence of the word “outro”.

  42. marie-lucie says

    Thank you Ø, it sounds like great fun! I use “it sounds” metaphorically, since there is no sound track to listen to on Wiki. Is there one available somewhere?

  43. Thanks LH, it is great fun, even though I don’t know many of the people (Wiki lists all the people and “their” instruments – like Princess Anne on the sousaphone, etc).

  44. J.W. Brewer says

    One reputable-looking reference book just calls “outro” in this sense a “late 20th century neologism” w/o further chronological specificity. Is it possible the Bonzos did coin it? They antedate the earliest trade-press reference I was able to find from a quick (and certainly-not-to-be-relied-upon-as-exhaustive) poke around google books, which was from Billboard in late ’71. But it could have been jargon in use (esp in tv shows or other contexts where the incidental music that goes with finishing up something is as important as what goes with starting it) prior to that with the Bonzos just alluding to known (if not necessarily documented in the wider world) usage.
    1967 also saw Traffic’s sorta-similarly-titled “We’re a Fade, You Missed This,” as “outro” and “fade” do not have perfectly identical referents but often overlap in practice.

  45. I don’t know many of the people
    General De Gaulle on accordion? Actually I don’t think many people would know who they are unless they’d been living in England in the 1960s. It’s very obscure list otherwise and some of the jokes would require long explanations.

  46. Which is why Wikipedia is so valuable; they do the spadework for you!

  47. AJP, General de Gaulle on accordion is not so far-fetched since the accordion is or was indispensable in French popular music especially between the two world wars – it was le piano du pauvre “the poor man’s piano”. At least it was still very popular in poor and rural dance halls when I was young. Usually the music was provided by a combo of accordion and clarinet, sometimes with something else, perhaps guitar. Of course De Gaulle probably would not have been caught dead in one of those places, even if he had liked accordion music, let alone played the accordion.
    I see from that the popularity of the accordion in France, after declining somewhat with the advent of rock, has gone up again, with accordion being taught in music schools, used to play classical music and attracting more serious composers. The accordion is also often used in combination with the most diverse instruments, including folk instruments such as bagpipes and others I had never heard of, to play traditional regional music or new pieces inspired by it. Lots of creativity around the once-despised accordion!

  48. Eric Clapton on ukelele! A hoot!
    m-l: At that time (1967) the ukelele was as despised as the accordion, and is also now being taken more seriously.
    More off-topic, m-l: I finally read Women’s Work, and is it an eye-opener! Yet, even though (as you said) queens in the first millenium B. C. were gifting each other with gold, silver or electrum spindles, I still think they would have been passing their mother’s mother’s stone spindles on to their daughters, say during their ‘apprenticeships’.

  49. m-l, I think in 1960s England accordion music, Gauloises, baguettes and red-and-white checked restaurant tableclothes were all associated with French life, so the idea of someone like de Gaulle playing the accordion was quite amusing. The theme for the 1960s BBC tv adaptation of Maigret was played on the accordion, and I bet anyone of my age (60) or older still remembers it. I see that it was written by Ron Grainer, who also wrote the Dr Who music.

  50. It may be one of the earliest examples in English of using A. Hilter as a joke character. Monty Python did it a little bit later. I doubt you’d get away with it today.
    The Irish singer Val Doonican had a BBC tv variety show, very much like the Andy Williams Show, that he introduced with the “Hello there!” that you hear repeated for the rest of the record.
    Sir Kenneth Clark had just come out with his Civilisation programme on BBC tv, the architype potted history of Western art & architecture on television that was reworked by Simon Schama and Robert Hughes in subsequent decades.
    J. Arthur Rank was a film distributor in Britain. His logo was a bare-chested man banging a huge gong, in slow motion. It showed before all feature films in Britain at that time.

  51. “The Producers” was made in 1968, that must be one of the first.

  52. AJP, you make me feel so old!

  53. marie-lucie says

    I remember that bare-chested man and the enormous gong! I did not realize this was the logo of British films.
    When I was a student specializing in English, I used to go to English-language movies quite a lot. I went to see old English and American movies shown in the Latin Quarter, where the cinemas were not only very cheap but open most of the day as well as in the evenings, so I could go in the afternoons. I had no interest in the first-run movies shown on the Champs-Elysées, which were dubbed in French as well as very expensive.

  54. I did not realize this was the logo of British films.
    Sorry, my mistake. If it was the logo of the distributor, it could have been used with both British and American films.

  55. Hat: I’ve been trying to analyze whether, and how much, I have adjectival fun. I agree that really fun makes my vibrissae twitch, but It’s not fun to be without electricity for four days doesn’t, though It’s no fun is more natural (cf. not easy and no joke respectively). Synthetic comparison is out — no *funner, funnest* for me — but analytic comparison is ambiguous: It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys can be parsed like more enjoyable or more enjoyment.

  56. I saw a lot of British movies in the fifties in Victoria. But wasn’t it Mad Magazine that had the joke about ‘grease the gong man for J. Arthur Rank’? He was a heavily muscled man with oiled torso and arms.

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