The original usage of the word shambles in English was to refer to a stool or table used by a money changer at a currency exchange. The word stems from Middle English schamels (singular schamel), then from Old English sċeamol “bench, stool,” itself from Latin scamellum, diminutive of scamnum “bench." The word is a cognate of Danish skammel “stool,” Dutch schemel “footstool, bench,” German Schemel “stool," and Icelandic skemill “footstool,” but the manner of use of this word in modern English is not reflected in any of these languages, to my knowledge.

In the early 15th century, the meaning of the singular "shamble" was extended in its plural form "shambles" to mean a set of tables for displaying cuts of meat to be sold after butchering. This meaning was extended further in the 16th century to refer to the slaughterhouse itself. We can observe this in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Mr. Rochester tells Jane, "If the man who had but one little ewe lamb that was dear to him as a daughter, that ate of his bread and drank of his cup, and lay in his bosom, had by some mistake slaughtered it at the shambles, he would not have rued his bloody blunder more than I now rue mine. Will you ever forgive me?" In Shakespeare's Othello, Desdemona tells Othello that she hopes he believes she is honest, and he replies cruelly, "Ay, as summer flies are in the shambles / That quicken even with blowing."

Later the meaning was extended to refer to any place of chaotic bloodshed, such as battlefields and execution blocks, until the 20th century, when the word lost its connotation of gore and violence, expanding to mean any general confusion and disorganisation, such as a child's untidy playroom.

The word shambling to mean "ungainly" or "walking with a shuffling or foot-dragging gait," such as a zombie might be said to do in a horror novel, is derived from the "meat market table" usage of shambles: such a table would see quite a bit of gore and offal, so little time would be invested in making sure it stands level and tidy on its legs. "Shamble legs" are as unsteady as the unequal legs of a shambles, and a shambling walk is a limp or other similarly unsteady gait. Considering how eagerly horror writers refer to zombies as "shambling," and considering the nature of zombies as animated rotting meat, one wonders if the earliest such uses were taking the slaughterhouse usage into account with their choice of adjectives, or if they coincidentally lucked into a word with a meaning related to zombies on more than a cosmetic level.

Iron Noder 2021, 18/30