omnishambles: a chaotic situation, especially in politics, brought about by multiple serious mistakes and a lack of basic understanding

Prime Minister's Question Time, 19 Oct 2022
Credit: UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

Malcolm Tucker: Not only have you got a [redacted] bent husband and a [redacted] daughter that gets taken to school in a [redacted] sedan chair, you’re also [redacted] mental. Jesus Christ, see you, you are a [redacted] omnishambles, that’s what you are.

The Thick Of It, Season 3 Episode 1 (2009)

Above is the first ever use of the word omnishambles, in a script for the British political comedy series The Thick Of It, written by Tony Roche. (The line is delivered in full-on profane style by the spin-doctor character Malcolm Tucker, played with a sort of unholy glee by Peter Capaldi.) It could have turned out to be a mere nonce word, used for a particular occasion and then discarded, but it struck a chord and seems to have filled a need, and it went on to become the Oxford English Dictionary‘s Word of the Year for 2012.

In the UK, of late, we’ve been getting a lesson in what happens when a fiscal policy apparently formulated in some sort of parallel fantasy universe encounters our own economic reality. And so it seemed like an appropriate time to give the word omnishambles an airing.

Omnishambles, of course, is formed from the word shambles, meaning a mess, intensified by the Latin prefix omni-, which is derived from the adjective omnis, meaning “every”. So it’s a sort of universal mess.

Shambles has had quite a long journey through the history of English before arriving at its current meaning. The singular, shamble, started out back in the ninth century, when it meant “footstool”. It had arrived in English via the Germanic languages, but ultimately seems to have derived from Latin scamellum, a diminutive of scamnum, “bench”. But the name soon shifted to a different piece of furniture—the table on which a person might lay out goods for sale in the marketplace. By the fourteenth century, it referred specifically to a butcher’s table or stall, and in the plural to a meat-market—hence the name of the mediæval street in York which once hosted a meat market, and which is still called Shambles. Then it began to applied to the slaughter-houses in which meat was prepared for market, and then, by analogy, to any place that hosted wholesale slaughter, such as a battlefield. Finally, having made the transition from humble footstool to scenes of carnage, the word has more recently declined in intensity—frequent hyperbolic usage, comparing scenes of mild disorder to those of ruination and destruction, has now worn the meaning down to little more than “a bit of a mess”. And in this most recent usage it has spawned an adjective, shambolic, which is often given as a synonym for chaotic, but which usually hints that the chaos is actually someone’s fault.

In the days when shambles referred to butchery, the verb to shamble enjoyed a couple of centuries when it meant “to cut up and dispose of a corpse”. But its current meaning actually has older origins—if a person was said to have shamble legs, it meant that they walked awkwardly with their legs wide-spread like those of a trestle table, and anyone who walks in this way is said to shamble. Their gait can be described as shambling or shambly.

Omnis in the plural is omnes, “all”, which appears in the Latin stage direction exuent omnes (“all go off”). At the end of Act V, Scene 3 of Cymbeline, for instance, Shakespeare clutters up the stage with multiple characters, and then almost immediately empties it:

Enter CYMBELINE, BELARIUS, GUIDERIUS, ARVIRAGUS, PISANIO, Soldiers, Attendants, and Roman Captives. The Captains present POSTHUMUS LEONATUS to CYMBELINE, who delivers him over to a Gaoler: then exeunt omnes

And the Latin instruction “Extra omnes!” (“Everybody out!”) is still uttered at the beginning of a Papal Conclave, when everyone but the cardinals is expelled from the Sistine Chapel, and the doors then locked.

Omnibus is the dative plural of omnis, and means “for all”. In the seventeenth century the French called an early form of mass public transport a voiture pour tous (“vehicle for all”), but sometimes tarted up the name with a bit of Latin, voiture omnibus. Which was then imported into English as just plain omnibus, and then contracted to bus. At the start of the twentieth century the phrase “the man on the Clapham omnibus” became a standard expression when seeking to invoke the desires and opinions of an “ordinary, reasonable person”. It’s sometimes credited to the English judge Charles Bowen, though without a good citation.*

Omnium is the genitive plural of omnis, meaning “of all”. It appears in the English word omnium-gatherum, “miscellaneous collection”. It’s clearly intended to imply a “gathering of all things”, but the gatherum bit is fake Latin—just the English word gather with an -um stuck on the end.

The prefix omni-, implying widespread or universal application, has produced too many words to deal with individually, so I’ll touch on only a few that seem of special interest.

Supreme Beings attract a lot of omni- words. The Christian God is often described as being omnipotent (“all powerful”), omniscient (“all knowing”), omnipresent (“everywhere at once”) and omnibenevolent (“benevolent to all”). The omnipotent bit unfortunately leads to paradoxes, exemplified by the question, “Can an omnipotent being create a rock so heavy it cannot lift it?” Such paradoxes have exercised theologians for centuries. The combination of omnibenevolence with omniscience and omnipotence also creates a paradox, when we look at the world around us—the Problem of Evil. An omniscient being must be aware of evil in the world; an omnibenevolent being must deplore such a situation; an omnipotent being has the power to get rid of it. And yet there is evil in the world.

In other areas of human endeavour, we have a range of rare but handy words: omni-erudite (“erudite in all things”), omnicredulous (“believing anything”), omnifutuant (“tolerating or practising all kinds of sexual behaviour”), omnigerant (“performing all kinds of work”), omnilegent (“reading everything”), omninescient (“ignorant of all things”), omniscian (“one who professes to know everything”), omnisciturient (“desiring to know everything”), omniscribent (“writing on all topics”) and omnivagent (“wandering everywhere”).

In my early days as a medical doctor, we used a drug called papaveretum, which was a mixture of opium alkaloids, really just one step removed from the stuff harvested from the opium poppy. In recognition of that fact it was marketed under the trade name OmnoponOmn- for “all”, -op- for “opiates” and -on to provide a fancy Greek-sounding ending.

And some among us will fondly recall the magazine Omni, a fairly beefy publication that covered a wide range of science and para-science, along with publishing some excellent science fiction. The paper edition was published from 1978 until 1995, and at time of writing the entire run is available, in occasionally blurry pdf files, from the Internet Archive.

Finally, I’ll leave you with omniana. That suffix -ana means “pertaining to”, and is probably most familiar in the word Victoriana, “objects or ideas from the Victorian era”. So omniana literally means “about everything”—in practice, a collection of writings about many, varied topics. It was, in fact, a contender for the name of this blog.

* Bowen is also said to have been the author of one of my favourite pieces of poetic wit:
    The rain it raineth on the just
    And also on the unjust fella;
    But chiefly on the just, because
    The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.

That could change, though. The original Archive collection was taken down for a while, and Kindle editions of the magazines appeared on Amazon, under the auspices of Jerrick Publishing. Then there seemed to be a lawsuit, and the Kindle editions subsequently vanished (all but one, oddly), and the Archive collection reappeared. It’s all a bit mysterious.

8 thoughts on “Omnishambles”

  1. I find it amusing that before I read this piece I was sure that omnishambles had been around since about the 1960’s. It just goes to show how quickly words become ingrained in your mind.

    You have also made me face up to the passing of time when you mentioned Omnopon and implied that it was a bit of an out-of-date drug. This puzzled me as I recalled often coming across it when checking the medical supplies of cargo ships when working in Customs. Then I remembered that this was in the mid 1970’s so now nearly 50 years go. Tempus fugits again I guess.

    1. Omnopon was a good enough drug, back in the day. Premedication with Omnopon + Scopolamine (“Om and Scop”) used to be a standard thing, but patients generally lost the rest of the day. As the newer anaesthetic drugs trended towards being more short-acting, Omnopon came to be seen as excessively sedative and long-acting, as well as coming with a suite of unpleasant side-effects.
      My mother received it once for minor surgery first thing in the morning, and it was the following day before she was conscious and orientated enough to receive visitors. Always one to look on the bright side, she summarized the experience as: “Apparently I was really sick [ie, vomiting] for the whole day, but I don’t remember anything about it.”

  2. Hi.
    My Dad used to quote your poem but the wording was a little different:

    The rain it raineth every day
    Upon the just and unjust fella
    But more upon the just because
    The unjust’s got the just’s umbrella.

    That was also attributed to Bowen when I looked it up (I might have an apostrophe in the wrong place).

    1. Both versions seem prevalent, but (like “the man on the Clapham omnibus”) I’ve never found either supported by an actual citation to something Bowen wrote. Presumably these differing versions have grown from anecdotes told about Bowen.
      I prefer the one I quoted because it seems (very slightly!) nearer to the original Biblical quotation, Matthew 5:45:

      That you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

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