Omnishambles – The Oxford English Dictionaries’ Word of the Year by Angela Caldin
Whichever way you look at it, it’s an omnishambles!
The Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is omnishambles. Oxford University Press has pronounced the word as its top term of 2012, defining it as ‘a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations’. We can only suppose that the word’s popularity reflects the general feeling of chaos and confusion in our society today, from meltdown at the BBC to the government’s repeated U-turns over policies and the embarrassing behaviour of various ministers. It’s not surprising that it was first heard issuing from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed Machiavelli of spin on the satirical programme ‘The Thick of It’.
Origin of the word omnishambles
I was interested in the origin of the word shambles and wondered if it was connected with the row of shops in York called The Shambles, which are the opposite of chaotic and a great tourist attraction. It seems that as early as AD825 there is a documentary record of the Old English word scomul later shamble, meaning footstool. This derives from the Latin scamellum, meaning small bench. By AD971 shamble had been recorded as meaning bench for the sale of goods and by 1305 stall for the sale of meat. This is where York comes in to the story. The introduction to a 1410 copy of the text of the York Mystery Plays refers to a dispute between various crafts guilds in the town. Candlemakers were up in arms, complaining that other guilds were muscling in on their territory and selling candles without a licence. The text is long and difficult to decipher, but the important point is that it makes specific mention of York’s Flesshchameles or flesh shambles, i.e. stalls selling meat.
In the Middle Ages, the narrow crowded lanes must have been bedlam, the streets crammed with stalls of all kinds of trades competing noisily for business. In addition to the Shambles’ butchers, the 1413 Register of the Freemen of York lists wevers, cordwaners, bakesters, glovers, fysshmangers and many more. It isn’t surprising that shambles therefore mutated its meaning to convert into a byword for chaos and disorder. It had become firmly established with that meaning by the 17th century.
A shamble, beginning as a humble stool, took a linguistic journey to come to mean a mess, and to be used along with the word total or complete, to describe the terrible aftermath of earthquakes and other natural disasters as well as the chaos of political and bureaucratic bungling that we have come to know only too well. In the case of the word of the year, it is joined with the Latin prefix omni, meaning all, so that omnishambles refers to a situation which is seen as shambolic from all possible perspectives.