Adventures in Etymology – Shambling Shambles

In this Adventure in Etymology we’re looking into the origins of the word shamble (and shambles).

The Shambles in York

To shamble means to walk while shuffling or dragging the feet, and a shamble is one of a succession of niches or platforms, one above another, to hold ore which is thrown successively from platform to platform, and thus raised to a higher level in a mine.

It comes from Middle English schamel / schambyll [ˈʃaːməl] (footstool), from Old English sċamol [ˈʃɑ.mol] (stool), from Proto-West Germanic *skamil (stool, bench), from Latin scabellum (footstool, a kind of percussion instrument played with the foot), from scamnum (stool, step, bench, ridge), from PIE *skabʰ- (to hold up) [source].

Words from the same roots include scanno (seat, bench, stool) in Italian, escano (bench, footstool) in Portuguese, scaun (chair, seat, stool, throne, residence, butcher’s block) in Romanian, Schemel (footstool) in German, and iskemle (chair) in Turkish [source].

In the plural, shambles means a scene of great disorder or ruin, a great mess or clutter, a scene of bloodshed, carnage or devastation, or a slaughterhouse, and it used to mean a butcher’s shop. It comes from the same roots as the singular shamble [source].

There’s a street in York in the north of England called The Shambles (see the photo above), that was once home to many butchers. They originally displayed their wares on stalls or benches known as shamels or schambylls, which gave the street its name. There are several similarly-named streets in other parts of the UK and Ireland [source].

Incidentally, a German equivalent of shamble is schlurfen [ˈʃlʊɐ̯fn̩], which means to shuffle (walk without picking up one’s feet). It’s related to the English word slurp [source].

Now it’s time to shamble off. I made a bit of an omnishambles of this post – I wrote most of it, then accidentally deleted half of it and had to rewrite it as I couldn’t retrieve the lost bits. I hope it’s not too shambolic.

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I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur blog.

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One thought on “Adventures in Etymology – Shambling Shambles

  1. Simon, when I am making some post that will be online eventually, I try to use NotePad++ to compose it first. That way, if I make a mistake like you did and delete something by mistake, or if the web site goes down mid-post, I don’t lose all my work.

    NotePad++ is a very well-designed text editor, and it has a marvelous Undo facility. It also will save your work if it it gets interrupted – even if the file was not yet saved. And, that works even on a “new” file that has no file name yet associated with it yet. Best of all, it’s actively being developed, and is distributed without charge. You should give it a try.

    See for more information.

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