In the introduction to Curious English Words and Phrases Max Cryer likens the English language to ‘a vast and ancient city’ magnificent, interesting and shambolic. An explanation of the origin of the last surprising adjective in his metaphor follows.

This is derived from ‘shambles’, which is a modern version of an old Latin word for a bench or table. In English it came to mean the table used by butchers for chopping beasts into portions. Shambles therefore became the word for a slaughterhouse or a place where meat was prepared.

An historic part of York is still called The Shambles, from the time when butchers’ shops were located there. And because meat preparation is always messy, the word shambles came to mean disorder, and a floppy, disorganised way of walking was called ‘a shamble’ because the legs were all over the place (like an animal’s legs on a butcher’s table).

But shamble(s) remained a noun until some bright spark turned it into an adjective and said, ‘This is a shambolic state of affairs.’ A new word was born.


From Curious English Words and Phrases by Max Cryer.