Sunday, March 12, 2006


Was watching Liverpool lose badly to Benfica the other night.

Liverpool’s performance was described correctly by the match commentator as ‘shambolic’. I suddenly needed to find out the etymology of this word. It means, as I expected, ‘completely disorganised, chaotic (cf the interaction of the headless chooks that comprised the Liverpool forward line) and, cutting to the chase, ‘it is irregularly formed from shambles', a 20th century concoction.

Among shambles' meanings I then found out, are a place where animals are slaughtered (or any place of execution) and also as a British dialect word meaning a row of covered stalls where goods (meat, originally) are bought and sold. Such as the street known as The Shambles (pictured) in York, England.

Shambles is a venerable old word dating back to the 14th century. The shambles was the table used by vendors and earlier Old English ‘sceamal’ was a stool from the Latin ‘scamullum’ which meant a small bench.

Here was a word with a rich tradition from the workplace. It went from a bench to a table to a market place to an execution site to a mess to bad tactics. It all adds up. To ‘shamble’ means to walk awkwardly comes from the same root, in this case the shamble legs of the table most closely resembled the gait of the unsteady meat vendors.

Or Liverpool strikers.

No comments: