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Whether it's "in shambles" or "a shambles," it's still a mess

If your life is in shambles, you probably have bigger things to worry about than grammar.

This week's topic comes from a listener who wanted to know the origin of "in shambles."

Soon after we received this question, a co-worker told us she was surprised to learn this phrase, used to refer to a mess or state of disorder, was originally "a shambles."

"Shambles" has an interesting etymology. It was borrowed into West Germanic from Latin before it came into English. It first came into English as "shamel" -- one of its many early spellings – to refer  to a footstool. In the 1400s, a "b" is added to the spelling, and we get "shamble."

In terms of meaning, in the Old English period, "shamel" referred to a table or a counter where someone could display goods or count money. In the 1300s, it comes to refer specifically to a table for selling meat.

In the 1400s, this word comes to refer to a meat market. This is also when the "b" gets added and the plural form starts to become common. Therefore, if someone said they were going to the shambles, it meant that they were going to a meat market.

Following that transition, "shambles" becomes a slaughterhouse. From there, it grows to refer to any bloody scene or place of carnage.  By the 1900s, it takes on the weaker meaning of a mess or scene of disorder that many of us are familiar with today. 

Here's a 1926 example from the book Microbe Hunters: "Once more his laboratory became a shambles of cluttered flasks and hurrying assistants..."  Did you notice the "a" before "shambles" in this example? Like "measles" and "gymnastics," "shambles" is one of those nouns that functions as a singular, even though there's an "s" at the end.

It was more common in the early 1900s to say "a shambles," but by the mid-1900s, "in shambles" starts to take off. That may be because of a re-understanding where people heard "in" instead of "a."

Now, "a shambles" and "in shambles" are almost equally common. Which do you prefer?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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