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The Scrivener: A Butchers At The Shambles

In his customary entertaining, sprightly and thoughtful way, columnist Brian Barratt takes a well-informed butchers at the multi-meanings of the word “shambles’’.

Your dictionary will tell you that a shambles is a state or condition of muddle, confusion, general disorder. We’re familiar with phrases like ‘it was a complete shambles’.

There is a fascinating area of the historic city of York, in England, called The Shambles. It comprises a narrow, winding street with many small shops, and is said to be one of the best preserved mediæval streets in Europe. A sign tells you that it is:
The ancient street of the Butchers of York, mentioned in the Domesday Book of William the Conqueror. It takes its name from the word ‘Shamel’, meaning the stalls or benches on which the meat was displayed—later versions of which can be seen. It was rebuilt about 1400 when it assumed its present character.

It was once known as Fleshammels, from the Middle English flesch-schamil, flesh-shamble. German and Scandinavian readers will recognise those words!

Shamble comes from Old English sceamel which meant a stool. In the 1600s, shamble legs was rudely descriptive of someone whose legs splayed out. It was also introduced as a verb, to shamble, to walk awkwardly, untidily, with legs sticking out like those of a stool or butcher’s trestle table. That’s not the sort of statement about someone which is politically correct nowadays. Even Dr Samuel Johnson, in his great dictionary (1755) defined shambling as: 'Moving aukwardly and irregularly. A low bad word.' presumably because it was an insult.

Shambles as meat-markets are mentioned in the Bible. Here is I Corinthians 10:25 in the Revised Version and the Revised Standard Version. Note the difference in translation.

Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, eat, asking no question for conscience sake;
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.

This shows that folk who take the Bible literally cannot be vegetarians, as the apostle Paul commands them to eat meat. So now you know.

Shakespeare mentioned shambles only twice in his place, first as a butchers' market in Othello 4: 2, 80:

DESDEMONA. I hope my noble lord esteems me honest.
OTHELLO. O, ay, as summer flies are in the shambles,
That quicken even with blowing. O thou weed,
Who art so lovely fair and smell'st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne'er been born!
DESDEMONA. Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed?

In Henry VI Part 3, he used shambles to denote a confused, messy state of affairs:
Far be the thought of this from Henry's heart,
To make a shambles of the parliament house!

And then in 1970, a new word appeared in print, although it had been in use in speech in Britain since the 1950s — shambolic. Someone seems to have combined 'shambles' perhaps with 'symbolic' to coin a word that denotes a symbol or demonstration of utter chaos.
By the way, when you take a butchers at something, you’re simply looking at it. In Cockney rhyming slang, 'butcher’s hook' rhymes with 'look'. So we’ve just been taking a butchers at butchers’ shambles and the meaning of shambles.

© Copyright 2004, 2007, 2011 Brian Barratt


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