Shamble, shambolic

Most English speakers are familiar with the noun shamble, which in today’s English refers to a disordered scene or a state of disorder. Though there’s nothing wrong with the singular shamble, the word usually takes the plural form but is often treated as singular, as in the common phrase in a shambles. This centuries-old practice is a relic of the word’s use in reference to slaughterhouses and the stalls of open-air meat markets.1 Shamble, meanwhile, doubles as a verb meaning to go (especially to walk) in an awkward or unsteady manner. 

Though shamble appears throughout the English-speaking world, its latter-day derivative shambolic, an adjective meaning disordered or undisciplined, has yet to catch on in the U.S. This could easily change in the coming years, however, as the word is useful for getting across a void of human competence that synonyms such as disorderly, disorganized, and chaotic don’t convey quite as well. Plus, the word is practically inescapable in news and blog writing from the U.K., is fairly common in Australia and New Zealand, and is significantly more common even in Canada than in the U.S., so it seems inevitable that more Americans will soon catch wind of it. Trying to predict which Britishims will enter American usage is a fool’s game, though, so we can only wait and see.


The noun shamble tends to take the plural form but is often treated as singular—for example:

The only way to fix this shambles, the international embarrassment which is the New Zealand cricket team, is to have a national think-tank. []

Mary’s room, though a shambles in her mother’s eyes, is not offensive to Mary. [Organizing for Life, Sandra Felton]

The SUSI student grant application shambles continues to rumble on with thousands of students still waiting on their money. [Irish Times]

Shamble is also a verb:

He clambered out of the cart and shambled over to the monument. [Opposing Views]

When the movie ended, I found myself shambling across the snowy parking lot and I began to experience a kind of jet lag. [Seacoast Online]

And shambolic is the corresponding adjective:

It was a story that began ignobly, with a shambolic retreat from advancing Panzers in France in 1940. [Independent]

The shambolic suburbs are unbelievably filthy – piles of rubbish litter the streets. [West Africa]

He should hang his head in shame at the shambolic way his government has wasted taxpayers’ money in their futile bid to hang on to power. [Tasmania Examiner]


1. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology

1 thought on “Shamble, shambolic”

  1. The derivative “omnishambles” was the OED’s word of the year in 2012.

    Its own derivative “Romneyshambles” probably won’t reach the same heights, given the presidential election result.


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