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In a Shambles

The investor Warren Buffett is famous for his financial acumen, but this astuteness does not seem to extend to his command of English phraseology. In this respect, his omission of the indefinite article from the phrase in a shambles repeats a ubiquitous error, as in the following excerpt from Mr. Buffet’s recent letter to his company’s shareholders:

“We’re certain, for example, that the economy will be in shambles throughout 2009 –and, for that matter, probably well beyond – but that conclusion does not tell us whether the stock market will rise or fall [emphasis added].” Warren E. Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: Shareholder Letters, 2008 (February 27, 2009, p. 4).

It is instructive to be made aware of the origin of the phrase in question. Here is the relevant entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2004):

sham·bles
pl. n. (used with a sing. verb)
1.
a. A scene or condition of complete disorder or ruin: “The economy was in a shambles” (W. Bruce Lincoln).
b. Great clutter or jumble; a total mess: made dinner and left the kitchen a shambles.
2.
a. A place or scene of bloodshed or carnage.
b. A scene or condition of great devastation.
3. A slaughterhouse.
4. Archaic A meat market or butcher shop.
[From Middle English shamel, shambil, place where meat is butchered and sold, from Old English sceamol, table, from Latin scabillum, scamillum, diminutive of scamnum, bench, stool.]
Word History: A place or situation referred to as a shambles is usually a mess, but it is no longer always the bloody mess it once was. The history of the word begins innocently enough with the Latin word scamnum, “a stool or bench serving as a seat, step, or support for the feet, for example.” The diminutive scamillum, “low stool,” was borrowed by speakers of Old English as sceamol, “stool, bench, table.” Old English sceamol became Middle English shamel, which developed the specific sense in the singular and plural of “a place where meat is butchered and sold.” The Middle English compound shamelhouse meant “slaughterhouse,” a sense that the plural shambles developed (first recorded in 1548) along with the figurative sense “a place or scene of bloodshed” (first recorded in 1593). Our current, more generalized meaning, “a scene or condition of disorder,” is first recorded in 1926 [emphasis added].

Considering the existence of phrases like in disarray and in decline––NB the abstract substantives!––it is clear that the myriad speakers (and writers) who drop the article from in a shambles are simply allowing the analogy of such phrases to hold sway over the entire class of phrases denoting the condition, including ones involving the figurative use of a concrete substantive where the indefinite article is de rigueur. But the innovation remains an error nonetheless. Catachresis? Yes. Imperfect learning? Yes, of course.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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