Someone had to say it - sooner or later someone had to make the inadvertent pun. "The Government's plan to ban beef on the bone", said the introduction to a news item in the Independent, "had degenerated into a complete shambles, it was claimed yesterday". It wasn't clear who had made the claim, or whether it was the usually stylish Independent itself that chose the word, but this was rather like saying that living in the Garden of Eden must have been sheer paradise - the sort of remark which invites an "as it were" after it.

The reason why people started using "shambles" to describe a disorganised mess was of course because a shambles was a butchery or slaughterhouse, but the word shamble goes much further back than that. It began as nothing more than a stool (scamellum in Latin - a scamnum was a bench, and this was its diminutive). Then it was taken over, who knows why, by tradesmen as the word for their counters. Then it was specifically a butcher's stall. Then it was a market, usually a meat-market, by which time (we are now in the 16th century) it had acquired its customary final "s", though still used as a singular. Presumably because butcher and slaughterman were often the same person, it came also to be a slaughter-house, and was ripe for use as a nice gobsmacking metaphor.

Metaphors, like cut flowers, inevitably lose their freshness sooner or later, but this one did rather well, lasting for several hundred years as a good word for battlefields and sacked cities, while for the 17th century poet John Donne it symbolised the corruption of the marketplace. To go by the Oxford dictionary, it was the Americans who first took the bloom off it in the 1920s by borrowing it for any sort of mess. Certainly it's a long way from the slaughterhouse to a teenager's bedroom.

Nicholas Bagnall