I never believed that shambolic was a real word until I looked it up. While the word is clearly related to shambles, its limited and specific use, along with its non-standard feel, give it an air of unreality. In fact, I had only ever come across the word in one particular context, as a derogotary description of a British football team’s defending (e.g., Liverpool’s defending has been absolutely shambolic!).
Despite its unfamiliarity, its relationship to shambles and the context in which I had heard it being used made its meaning as something that is a ‘mess’ very clear. However, the arcane nature of shambolic indicates that something described as such is not just any mess, but something truly disastrous. This led me to question what type of special mess could be meant by the use of shambolic or, for that matter, shambles.
As it turns out, shambolic has a long and interesting history that provides a surprising answer to that question. It comes down to us in its present form from the Old English word sceamel, which itself derives from the Latin term scamnum, meaning ‘bench’. As the word developed in English into shambles, it took on the connotation of a butcher’s bench, the bench on which butchers did their messy work.
Over time, the specific connotation of a butcher’s bench became the dominant one and shambles became a synonym for a butcher’s shop or even a slaughterhouse; in other words, a literal bloody mess. Eventually, the literal level of meaning was lost and it is tempting to see the ‘bloody’ aspect as fading into the figurative, which, in my opinion, causes the word to lose some of its inherent power.
So, the next time you hear a British football commentator (or anyone else) describe a team’s defending as shambolic, don’t just think of their back four as being a bit disorganized, think of it as a bloody, gory mess.