"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.
  • French has the word "chamboulé" translated as "thrown into disorder" or "turned-upside-down". The "ch" is pronounced "sh", so it sounds very similar, but it appears to be pure coincidence. – rghome Nov 30 '17 at 14:52

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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  • 1
    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

1 Corinthians 10:25 King James Bible

"Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake:"

Perhaps this expression, "in the shambles" increased in usage after the publishing of the first King James Bible.

I researched the rendition of this word in the Greek, Hebrew and Latin and those words do not resemble this pronunciation.

It would be interesting to see the notes written by the translators who worked on this version of the Bible to see whether they discussed which way to put this idea in English at the time.

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  • 1
    It's from Latin by way of Old English. It was a word in Elizabethan English for meat market (which is how it's translated in newer editions of the Bible). – Peter Shor Jun 27 at 18:26

The Wycliffe Bible (c.1390) has 25 All thing that is sold in the butchery, eat ye, asking nothing for conscience.

The Tyndale Bible (1535) has, 1 Corinthians 10:25 appears as 25 What soever is solde in the market that eate and axe no questions for conscience sake

The Geneva Bible (1560) has 25 Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, eat ye, and ask no question for conscience sake.

From at least 1390, the concept of a shamble(s) was thus of an area in which animals were slaughtered and their (and other) meat sold.

Its development was: (From OED)

†1. A stool, footstool. Chiefly in figurative context.

c825 Vesp. Ps. cix. 1 Oð ðæt ic sette feond ðine scomul [scabellum] fota ðinra.

and then it became

2.†a. In Old English, a table or counter for exposing goods for sale, counting money, etc. Obsolete.

971 Blickl. Hom. 71 He þa ineode on þæt halige Salemannes templ, & þa ut awearp þa sceomolas þara cypemanna.

It then became more specialised, and by Middle English it had become

2b. spec. A table or stall for the sale of meat.

α c1305 Of Men Lif, etc. xv, in Early Eng. Poems & Lives Saints (1862) 155
Hail be ȝe potters [? bochers] wiþ ȝur bole ax..ȝe stondiþ at þe schamil [printed sthamil in Rel. Ant. II. 176], brod ferlich bernes.

And 100 years later synecdoche had taken place, and as used in the Geneva Bible:

  1. a. plural. A place where meat (or occasionally fish) is sold, a flesh- or meat-market. ? Now local.

a1410 in York Myst. Introd. 24 (note) All the folks of the salsemaker crafte..without the Flesshchameles.

The potential for use in a transferred/figurative sense was not lost on the people:

5. transferred and figurative.

a. A place of carnage or wholesale slaughter; a scene of blood. Chiefly plural construed as singular; rarely in singular form.

1593 T. Nashe Christs Teares 12 b The Infidell-Romaines..shall inuade thee, and make thy Citty..a shambles of dead bodies.

However, it took another 300 years to become acceptable as

5 b. plural. In more general use, a scene of disorder or devastation; a ruin; a mess. Originally U.S.

1926 P. H. de Kruif Microbe Hunters iii. iv. 83 Once more his laboratory became a shambles of cluttered flasks and hurrying assistants.

And this is the only meaning that is now common.

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