Most of us are probably familiar with the noun ‘shambles’ – but the verb ‘shamble’? Anyway, when I began to do some digging the etymology turned out to be pretty interesting.
The noun SHAMBLES/SHAMBLE that I always knew and loved and which was mostly preceded by ‘a’ meant a) the scene or condition of complete disorder or ruin. <His finances were in a shambles> <They turned cities into shambles> b) great clutter or jumble, a total mess. <My son’s room was in a shambles>. The rest of the noun meanings that I was not as familiar with includes: c) a place or scene of bloodshed and carnage <There position became a shambles, every soldier being killed or wounded> d) a slaughter house. e) British Dialect: a butcher shop or stall.
It’s a long way from ‘footstool’ to a ‘mess’ and ‘a funny kind of walk,’ but such is the etymology of ‘shamble.’ However, it is not a tortured path, and the drastic shift in meaning followed a fairly logical and orderly path. The Old English ‘scamul/scamel’ is presumed to be derived ultimately from the Latin ‘scamellum,’ little bench. In Old English ‘scamul’ was used to mean both ‘a footstool’ and ‘a table used for counting money or exhibiting goods.’ The Middle English derivative ‘shamel’ and its later form ‘shamble’ acquired the specific senses of ‘a table or stall for the exhibition of meat for sale,’ which in turn gave rise in the 15th century to a use of the plural ‘shamels’ and ‘shambles,’ with the meaning ‘a meat market.’ The ‘shamels’ spelling soon died out, and the next extension in meaning occurred in the 16th century, when ‘shambles’ came to mean ‘slaughterhouse.’ It was from this sense that the figurative use developed soon after to refer to a place of terrible slaughter or bloodshed.
In the 20th century, SHAMBLES underwent two further extensions of meaning. Probably because a place of terrible slaughter, such as a battlefield or a besieged city, is also a place of great destruction and disorder, ‘shambles’ acquired the senses of ‘a scene of great destruction’ and ‘a scene of great disorder or confusion – a mess.`
The verb SHAMBLE means to walk with an awkward ungainly gate, to walk awkwardly unsteadily, often with dragging feet, shuffle or to move awkwardly. <A crab shambled across the bottom of the tidepool>. This verb first appeared in 1681 and is believed to have derived from the expression ‘shamble-legs,’ ungainly legs or one who walked wide (i.e. as if straddling), reminiscent of the legs of a shamble (a footstool).
Note: During the period of history preceding the Civil War, the term also signified a slave market<1593 “The Infidell-Romaines . ...shall invade thee, and make thy Citty . . . a SHAMBLES of dead bodies.”—“Christ’s Tears Over Jerusalem: by Nashe, page 12b>
<1794 “I've fear'd him, since his iron heart endured To make of Lyons one vast human SHAMBLES.”—‘Robespierre’ by Coleridge, I. i. page 79>
<1837 “Jinks . . . SHAMBLED to a seat, and proceeded to write it down.”—‘Pickwick Papers’ by Dickens, xxiv>
<1926 “Once more his laboratory became a SHAMBLES of cluttered flasks and hurrying assistants.”—‘Microbe Hunters’ by P. H. De Kruif, III. iv. page 83>
(Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins)<1852 “An older sister went to SHAMBLES to plead with the wretch . . . to spare his victims.”—“Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe>
Ken G – December 11, 2004