Why shambles?
[ 2006-11-10 14:27 ]

Dear Sir:
In the news, I read that the trial of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was often called "a shambles". I'm wondering, like, why "shambles"? Why plural? Why not "a shamble"?
- Very Puzzled.

Dear Very Puzzled:
In this day of loose values (and not just in linguistics), anything goes. Some people actually call the trial of Saddam Hussein "a shamble", but it's not correct English.

"Shambles" is NOT the plural form of "shamble". They are two different words.

The Shambles is said to have been an ancient street in York, England occupied by butchers who set up slaughterhouses there. The slaughterhouses have long been gone, but the word "shambles" has persevered in the language. It means a situation that is chaotic (imagine scenes at a slaughterhouse, if you can) because things are not properly planned or organized.

The word "shamble", on the other hand, is a slow, awkward walk, as if dragging one's feet in a tired, weak or lazy way.

Let's take the very trial of Saddam Hussein, for examples.

This BBC report (Two sides of Saddam coin, October 19, 2005) used the word "shamble" to describe how Saddam dragged his feet on his way out of the courtroom:

There was a final moment of resistance just as the court was adjourned to consider the request from the defense for more time to examine the documents produced by the prosecution.

Saddam had finally acknowledged the other defendants for the first time, smiling and making jokes about the changes in their appearance since the last time he had seen them, when they were still serving his regime.

Then the two guards took him by the arms again to lead him out.

He let them do it for a few steps, but then he saw the journalists behind the bullet-proof glass at the back of the court.

Immediately he tried to pull away from his guards, telling them not to touch him and to leave him alone.

After a while they did, and he shambled slowly out of the courtroom.

The Economist (After the Saddam verdict, November 6, 2006) used the word "shambles" to describe the lack of procedural justice in a trial sponsored by a United States that had nabbed Saddam in a war launched on flimsy pretexts:

GUILTY of mass murder: that Saddam Hussein certainly is. But what of the legal process that proclaimed him such, and sentenced him to death, on Sunday November 5th? There are reasons to see the trial as a leap forward for Iraq. There are also reasons to proclaim it a shambles even by the rough standards of what is known as "transitional justice".

 

About the author:
 

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

 
 
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