Every Wednesday here in the UK, we are treated to a piece of political theatre known as ‘Prime Minister’s questions’ or PMQs. For half an hour, the Prime Minster is obliged to answer questions from other MPs, and the traditional highlight of this event is a verbal skirmish between the PM and the Leader of the Opposition – currently Labour leader Ed Miliband. Last Wednesday, Miliband used PMQs to focus on changes to the tax system announced by the government in its recent annual Budget speech. Some of these changes had unintended consequences. Though barely noticed when they were first announced, their implications gradually became clear, so that they’re now seen as politically foolish because they brought maximum unpopularity for minimum financial gain – a classic example of an ‘own goal’. Miliband took the opportunity to put the boot in. He reeled off a list of the offending changes, and concluded with the latest example of linguistic inflation:
We are all keen to hear the Prime Minister’s view on why he thinks, four weeks on from the Budget, even people within Downing Street are calling it an omnishambles Budget.
And suddenly, omnishambles is omnipresent (and it already has an entry in our Open Dictionary). It is not a new word, though: it was invented in 2009 by Malcolm Tucker, the fictional spin doctor and foul-mouthed star of the BBC comedy series The Thick of It. Tucker used it just once, and (like countless other inventive coinages) it seemed to disappear without trace – until now.
Omnishambles combines the prefix omni– with the old English word shambles, which started life as a singular noun (shamble), meaning a table or stall for the sale of meat. From the 15th century, it was used mainly in the plural, to denote a meat market – a collection of individual stalls – and visitors to the city of York can walk through a medieval street called The Shambles, which used to be full of butcher’s shops. From here, it also came to mean a slaughterhouse or abattoir, and from around 1600 it acquired a figurative sense, denoting – as the OED puts it – ‘a place of carnage or wholesale slaughter’.
Its current use, meaning a situation of great disorder, suggesting incompetent management, is relatively recent. Like most words of this type, it tends to be modified (or ‘amplified’) by words like total, utter, absolute, and – most frequently – complete … even when the subject is a trivial upset, as in this ridiculous example from our corpus:
The tea was a major embarrassment. Instead of tea we got a few cakes out of packets, no sandwiches at all!!! Staggering. Complete shambles. This should have been the best tea of the year!
Shambles is one of those unusual words (like moneybags or butterfingers) which looks plural but acts singular: a situation is ‘a shambles’. Not surprisingly, then, reports of Miliband’s speech all record him as saying, in the run-up to his ‘omnishambles’ climax:
Over the past month we have seen the charity tax shambles, the churches tax shambles, the caravan tax shambles and the pasty tax shambles.
But my colleagues and I at Macmillan, having listened to the speech several times, are all convinced he used the singular version (‘the charity tax shamble, the churches tax shamble…’), as if to indicate that each individual ‘shamble’ added up to a collection of shambles (or an omnishambles). So are we seeing the word return to its original singular form? Or is it one of those doubtful cases like Neil Armstrong’s famous line as he came down that ladder on to the moon? See what you think: the speech is here, and the relevant section starts at around 10 minutes 45 seconds.Email this Post