“Shambolic,” revisited

This popped up on my New York Times phone app this morning.

The headline, taken directly from the columnist Bret Stephens, spurred to me take another look at shambolic, which I first addressed almost precisely eleven years ago. (Time flies when you’re having fun.) The definition of the adjective is “Chaotic, disorderly, undisciplined” — that is, in a state of shambles. As I noted then, the OED‘s first citation is from The Times of London in 1970, but there’s also an odd note: “Reported to be ‘in common use’ in 1958.” Doesn’t say who’s doing the reporting.

In any case, there are definitely antedates to the 1970 quote, and even to 1958. Moving in reverse chronological order:

  • August 3, 1965: “Mr: William Yates The hon: Member must understand that so long as the country is willing to pour more and more money into this ancient, shambolic building in this area of London, there is no chance of getting that or having any of the facilities that he wants…”–Parliamentary debate
  • July 25, 1965: “Our social life is shambolic.”–The Sunday Times
  • 1958: “He said his club had coined a new word ‘Shambolic,’ which meant spending more time watching the weather than playing.”–West Sussex Times
  • 1952: “… one must admit there were those among us who were somewhat on the shambolic side.”–The Tank. (This citation appears in Wiktionary, which links to a Google Books entry, but I don’t 100 percent trust it because Google Books doesn’t offer a full view and its dating is often dodgy.)

Next is an interesting quote I turned up in the ProQuest database. It’s an abstract of a 1946 article from the Blackpool Tribune reviewing a book by Roland Gant called How Like a Wilderness. It’s not clear who write the abstract, or when, but it has the feel of being composed at the time–and also suggests “shambolic” might have been World War II military slang. The blurb begins: “THE AUTHOR parachuted into the Calvados country on D-Day in an operation which, in the language of those days, would have been described as ‘shambolic.'”

And there’s one more, a full seven years earlier, which I had cited in my earlier post. It’s from a May 1939 number of The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics. (Previously, I had found it via Google Books, but it doesn’t appear to be there anymore, and this time I dug it up in the JSTOR database.)

I’m pretty certain that this doesn’t have any relation to the present-day “shambolic.” For one thing, it’s in an American journal, and Ngram Viewer shows the word not taking hold in the U.S. till the 1990s.

For another, the context (including quotation marks) suggests that the writer, David S. Wald, is inventing a new word based on “sham,” not “shambles.” But the word is undeniably there and I hope the OED takes note.

As I say, American use picked up at the end of the last century. It first turned up in the New York Times in a 1984 William Safire column taking note of the word. Between then and today’s Bret Stephens quote, the word appeared in the paper 365 times.

And finally, I should note that we should be grateful to “shambolic” if only because it spawned omnishambles!

14 thoughts on ““Shambolic,” revisited

  1. Ooh, not sure I agree about the origin of ‘omnishambles’. ‘Shambolic’ is widely recognised in the UK, but has never been spoken as often as ‘shambles’, not in my hearing.

    1. Yes, “shambles” meaning a mess, a state of disorder, seems to have been around for a while – 1926 is the earliest citation in the OED.

      1. Yup, ‘omnishambles’ first struck me as a catchy way to say ‘an enormous shambles’ but I suppose it means ‘a shambles in all respects/in every way’ – The opposite of omnicompetent; not such a catchy word, but its vibe also matches its meaning. The classic phrase our dads would have used is ‘it’s a bloody shambles’; which neatly connects with the original, many centuries old, meaning of ‘shambles’.

        Phrazle has at last set a clearly non-American phrase as its teaser – and it’s a noob Ben has covered. A few days ago the solution was ‘getting sacked’. We’d be more likely to say ‘getting the sack’ of course.

      1. I’m perhaps not the best person to ask, Ben; I only became aware of omnishambles when it was used in the House of Commons, around ten years ago. The “The Thick of It” attribution would have been contradicted by now if anyone could prove they’d used it earlier, so it seems pretty solid.

      2. It seems to me that rather than omnishambles coming from shambolic, they both derive from shambles, meaning a mess, either literally or figuratively.

        Shambolic is an adjective, meaning like a shambles. I also wonder if it is a portmanteau – shambles and symbolic.

        An omnishambles is a shambles in several different ways. I’ve never seen The Thick of It, but the entry for omnishambles on Wikipedia gives the context. A new cabinet minister on the first day of her new job messes things up in three different ways. It is suggested her husband is corrupt and she accidentally shows that by standing in the wrong place in front of a sign. It is revealed that she is sending her daughter to a private school. And she is involved with appropriating an expensive office chair from a member of staff. (And I see that the minister was played by Rebecca Front, great in both Avenue 5 and The Other One.)

      3. Yes, you’re right about omnishambles deriving from shambles rather than from shambolic. But I would guess that the voguishness of “shambolic” had something to do with the invention of “omnishambles.”

      4. It seems to me that shambles (as a noun) is still common in everyday speech in the UK. Can’t say that shambolic is particularly voguish. Certainly I think I’d say, “That’s a shambles,” more often than “That’s shambolic.”

  2. A shambles was originally an open air slaughter house and meat market – which lends the current use an air of utter disaster!

  3. I used to go to school in York, which has a famously picturesque street called The Shambles, once full of butchers. I see from Wikipedia on the street that “shambles” possibly comes from “the Anglo-Saxon Fleshammels (literally ‘flesh-shelves’)”

    The August 1965 Parliamentary debate quote about “this ancient, shambolic building” is still relevant today as it presumably refers to the crumbling Parliament building itself (completed 1860) – a situation that has not been addressed properly in the subsequent 57 years and might take another 76 years and £22 billion to sort out!


  4. Shambolic rhymes with ‘carbolic’, a common word for over a century. I can’t think of other rhymes for those two, so perhaps carbolic blazed a trail for shambolic.

    1. ‘Alcoholic’ and ‘colic’ rhyme with it. A rhyme starts with vowel of the last stressed syllable, so you don’t need to match the ‘b’.

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