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omnishambles

noun [singular]

something that is very badly organised and is ineffective in every possible way

omnishambolic

adjective

'But a "double-dip" recession, fallout from a budget dubbed an omnishambles by critics and the ongoing saga of his relations with Rupert Murdoch have all contributed to a recent slump in Conservative fortunes in national opinion polls.'

BBC News 3rd May 2012

'Ken could still win. Anger at the Prime Minister and his omnishambolic administration could still tip the scales.'

The Telegraph 30th April 2012

Though the English language is colourful and rich in descriptive words, we'll all have experienced times when we want to communicate something but any words we can think of just don't quite cut it. It's at these moments that we might cross the boundary into language innovation and come out with something original which more effectively captures what we want to express, but in a way that is still intelligible to others. For Ed Miliband, leader of the UK's opposition Labour party, the word that recently hit the spot in such a circumstance was omnishambles, which he used during Prime Minister's Questions on 18th April 2012, to refer to a situation of failure on every level.

notable in raising the budget to omnishambles status was the so-called pasty tax, an extra tax on certain forms of hot food

The word omnishambles came as a climax to an animated string of criticism in relation to the Conservative government's recent budget proposals, which have proved extremely unpopular within many sections of UK society. Notable in raising the budget to omnishambles status was the so-called pasty tax, an extra tax on certain forms of hot food which proves practically impossible to implement in a consistent and sensible way, and has led to tongue-in-cheek references to pastygate (the suffix –gate derives from the Watergate political scandal in the US in the 1970s, and is now regularly attached to nouns to denote any kind of high-profile gaffe or scandal). Other controversial measures included the so-called granny tax, a freezing of age-related allowances for pensioners, and a charity tax, which removes tax incentives for wealthy donors (and thereby potentially reduces the amount charities receive). But what has really catapulted the government's financial proposals into the 'shambolic' realms is the reality of what is now being referred to as a double-dip recession – an ailing economy that looked like it was recovering, but now sadly seems to be sliding back into the doldrums.

No sooner uttered by a passionate Mr Miliband, omnishambles was seized upon by the media and quickly became widely used (or should I say 'omnipresent'!) in political commentary across the UK, not just in reference to the budget, but in describing any government activity deemed to be ineffectual.

Background – omnishambles

The word omnishambles was first uttered in 2009 by fictional character Malcolm Tucker in the BBC TV series The Thick of It, a satirical comedy about the inner workings of the UK government. In the culmination of a furious rant at fictional MP Nicola Murray, communications director Tucker exclaims that Murray is an omnishambles (you can see the clip here – NB: contains very strong language).

The word omnishambles is a creative combination of the noun shambles, meaning 'something badly organized and ineffective' and prefix omni- meaning 'everywhere' or 'everything'. Omni- derives from the Latin omnis, meaning 'all', and more commonly combines with adjectives, e.g. omnipresent = present everywhere, omniscient = knowing everything. The word shambles goes back to late Middle English, where it originally existed as a plural of countable form shamble meaning 'stall'. Shambles was used to describe a collection of stalls forming a meat market, and gradually made the transition to referring to a 'state of carnage', some years later arriving at the figurative extension that we're familiar with today, i.e. a 'state of disorder'. In the course of the semantic shift shambles became a singular noun, which is a noun that cannot be made plural, but can be used with the indefinite article a/an. Omnishambles is therefore also used as a singular noun, as demonstrated in the first citation above, though often occurs as a noun modifier as in an omnishambles budget. Mirroring the derived adjective shambolic (which is a relative latecomer, not appearing until the 1970s), there's also now evidence for use of adjective omnishambolic.

Thus far, use of both omnishambles and omnishambolic appears to be confined to political contexts, and it remains to be seen whether they'll begin to acquire a more generic reference as straightforward intensifiers of shambles and shambolic.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 14th May 2012.

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