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"Shambles" is one of the few singular nouns in English that blatantly resembles a plural noun. What is the origin of "a shambles"? Why do we really need to prefix an "a" in front of "shambles"? Which of the following is perfect?

  • The country's economy is in shambles.
  • The country's economy is in a shambles.
  • The country's economy is a shambles.
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up vote 1 down vote accepted

The weird usage seems to have developed in the same way as "a headquarters". Consider the following Ngram:

a/the shamble/shambles

The original phrase seems to have been "shambles" or "the shambles", almost always plural. It meant "a place for slaughtering animals", but later came to be also used for scenes of carnage, scenes of great disorder, and certain dangerous shoals at sea.

Etymonline says that "shambles" originally meant "meat market", having evolved from the word schamil meaning "table or stall for vending". I assume that it naturally started out as a plural, because there would be several butcher's stalls at a meat market.

However, once "shambles" came to mean "a scene of great disorder or carnage", the things it referred to were more naturally singular, and so "shambles" slowly came to be used as a singular.

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One can also check in Google books that, during the 18th century, "the shambles are" was considerably more common than "the shambles is", showing that the usage was indeed generally as a plural at the time. And some of the exceptions are not referring to the slaughterhouse (shambles) itself, but to a street named "The Shambles". – Peter Shor Mar 27 '12 at 22:06

"in a shambles" or "a shambles" would be correct. The only form that the last one would work for is "shambolic".

Given the origin, it actually does make sense, because the object is in [or just is ] a place of chaos and disorder - one of many such places. But it seems that an economy should be a shamble. The s is not a pluralisation, but a part of the word.

In York, UK, The Shambles is still a street, and a popular one for tourist shops.

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Merriam Webster says:

shambles: a place of mass slaughter or bloodshed; a scene or a state of great disorder or confusion

and offers an example:

the city was a shambles after the bombing

note that it doesn't use 'in' at all.

Traditional usage would say your first option is incorrect. Given the definition above we can elaborate your sentence as:

The country's economy is (figuratively) 'a place of mass slaughter' or 'a scene of great disorder' thus, The country's economy is a shambles would be optimal, I think.

Perhaps using the state of disorder definition would allow one to use 'in a ~'

So, your second option, "The country's economy is in a shambles" could also work.

As long as we're throwing Ngrams in, here is one that shows that Option 1 has gained popularity quite recently: enter image description here

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Google Ngrams seems to show that historically, the correct phrase was is a shambles, but that is in a shambles has recently become acceptable. – Peter Shor Mar 26 '12 at 5:09
Thanks Jim, added a third option as well. Any idea about the weird usage? – Bravo Mar 26 '12 at 5:11
@PeterShor, were you trying to account for old-english with 'fhambles' in your Ngram? And if you look at the usage of shamble in the Ngram citations it covers a much broader scope than just the 'scene of great disorder' definition. For example there is "She rested her feet on a shamble" and "To work a mine by throwing the material excavated onto a shamble" which means it can also be a 'thing'. The usage of "the shambles" in the early 1800's citations seem to all refer to the actual slaughterhouse: "From wit to beef, from Shakespeare to the shambles" – Jim Mar 26 '12 at 6:10
@Jim: the "fhambles" is necessary to find all the pre-1800 references, as the Google Books OCR often mistakes the long s (ſ) for an f. – Peter Shor Mar 27 '12 at 22:12

I have understood that the term goes back to Biblical times, and indicated the meat market where meat from the pagan temples and the Jewish Temple was offered for sale. Apparently the priests received more in meat offerings than they could ingest, and sent the excess to the shambles for sale to the general public. If originally offered to idols, the meat may have brought a higher price that the same cuts from local producers.

H Craft Houston

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Welcome to EL&U. As the site tour and help center would indicate, answers on StackExchange are expected to provide appropriate references. Since the origin of the word shambles is only traced to the 1300s, centuries after the destruction of the temple, your explanation sounds rather implausible. – choster Oct 30 '14 at 16:21

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