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TWTS: Shackling a ram is one way to get a ramshackle house

It’s tempting to parse the word “ramshackle” into two separate words, “ram” and “shackle.”

A listener named Brian Van Drie wrote to us about how this word makes him think of “a ram that is actually shackled and is making a mess of anything it can reach.”

We love that explanation. Unfortunately, it's not right.

A shackled ram certainly could create the kind damage and disorder associated with the word "ramshackle.” However, the origin of this term doesn't have anything to do with rams.

"Ramshackle" actually goes back to the verb “ransack.”

“Ransack” goes back to Old Norse. It shows up in written English in the 15th century and means “to search thoroughly.”

Later on, the regional verb form “ransackle” appears in Scottish and northern English dialects. We think that’s what lead to the adjective “ramshackled,” which meant disorderly or chaotic.

The back-form “ramshackle” first shows up in written English in 1820. It could refer to a person or activity that is disorderly or irregular. It could also refer to a building or a vehicle -- that's generally how we use it today.

Origin stories aside, if you happen to own a ram, we don't recommend shackling it. We also don't recommend owning a ram, especially if you're not fond of settling arguments with head butts.

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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