An omnipresent omnishambles

Posted by on April 25, 2012

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.

Comments (5)
  • Ian Preston, on Twitter, says that to his ear, “each use comes over clearly as ‘shambles’.” I think he and the reports are right: all sound unambiguously plural to me, too. He finds it strange that Miliband separates omni and shambles as though they’re separate words, but I suppose that’s for emphasis and rhythm.

    Posted by Stan on 25th April, 2012
  • STOP PRESS: yet more linguistic inflation (heard on lunchtime news today). With yet more bad press for the UK government (including news of a ‘double dip recession‘), one of the political commentators is now talking about an ‘Übershambles’. Where will it all end?

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 25th April, 2012
  • There’s more, Michael – on a blog called Snouts in the Trough on the same day: ‘Omni-shambles is a great word. It brilliantly described this useless government’s pathetic efforts a couple of weeks ago. But with the latest blunders and gaffes, we probably new (sic.) a new word. There’s mega-shambles or giga-shambles or meta-shambles. Or maybe we need something stronger than that.’ The desire to inflate ‘shamble(s)’ seems insatiable. This one could run and run.

    Posted by Diane Nicholls on 27th April, 2012
  • You know I’m not sure that I agree that ‘omnishambles’ represents an example of linguistic inflation (in its recently discussed sense of ‘devaluation’ of meaning). I think that what Ed wants to do here is precisely the opposite, he absolutely wants to make it clear that he regards things an olympic cock-up, and rather than using the conventional amplifiers that Michael mentions (total, utter) he goes for something innovative, because even those adjectives don’t quite capture the intensity of his feeling. I don’t know whether anyone’s familiar with the lexical function theories of Igor Melcuk, but to my mind this is a classic example of his Magn function, ie: Omnishambles = Magn(shambles). The other examples Di mentions reflect this view, ie that existing lexical items don’t go far enough in describing ‘the mess’. This is quite a different animal to the popular use of words like awesome, genius etc…

    Posted by Kerry on 4th May, 2012
  • Good point, Kerry: a ‘complete’ or ‘utter’ shambles could just be a single shambles of an especially extreme nature. An ‘omnishambles’ is all-encompassing collection of shambolic events.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 7th May, 2012
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