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shameless pleading

Ramshackle

All fall down.

Dear Word Detective: I have a favorite word that I’ve only heard from one person. It may be a regionalism (from a very small region, perhaps). The word is “ramacackle.” I’m not sure of the spelling. It means run “down, dilapidated, falling apart.” I heard it in reference to an old house. Has anyone else ever heard of “ramacackle,” or do I live in my own little world? Or both? I think we should all start using it constantly, because it’s such a great word, and we need to have it in our language. — KR.

A region of one? Works for me. Actually, it reminds me of the US Army recruiting slogan from a few years ago, “An Army of One.” I never understood what the heck that was supposed to mean. To paraphrase Calvin & Hobbes, government money going to ad agencies weirds language.

Interestingly, the idea of “a region of one” is entirely valid in matters of language. Every human being speaks an “idiolect,” a personal version of whatever language they think they speak, and that idiolect inevitably differs, in at least some tiny respect, from the idiolects their family, friends, etc., speak. (“Idiolect,” combining “idio,” a prefix from Greek meaning “distinct” or “personal,” with “lect” from “dialect,” was coined by Bernard Bloch, an American linguist, in 1948.) Your personal vocabulary, choices of idioms and metaphors, grammatical quirks, pronunciation of words, sentence length and many other variables distinguish your particular idiolect. Many linguists consider any language, in fact, as the sum of the idiolects spoken by its speakers, rather than as an “ideal” fixed language from which we all depart to various degrees in personal speech.

Meanwhile, back at your actual question, I have been unable to find any record of “ramacackle” or anything close to it. I think what we have here is, to paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, a failure to communicate. In all likelihood, the person who said “ramacackle” actually meant “ramshackle,” which does mean “run down, dilapidated, falling apart.” (It’s also possible that “ramacackle” is an obscure folk variant of “ramshackle,” but, if so, it must be very obscure indeed.)

“Ramshackle” first appeared in print in 1820 as an adjective describing a person or action considered erratic, unstable or “disordered,” and was quickly applied to buildings, etc., that were severely dilapidated, run-down, etc. “Ramshackle” soon also became a noun meaning such a building, vehicle, etc. (“There are ramshackles and hovels ‘out yonder’ so packed with families, so crowded with children,” 1912).

“Ramshackle,” interestingly, originated as a variant on the much older (1675) adjective “ramshackled,” which may sound like what happens to a bad male sheep when the farm police show up, but actually meant the same thing as “ramshackle.” Follow the trail a bit further back and you hit “ransackle,” which, back in 1605, was a variant of “ransack,” meaning “to search thoroughly in order to find something” (“Vainly ransacking my mind for some expression of thanks that wouldn’t sound ironical,” 1903). “Ransack” comes from the Old Norse “rannsaka,” meaning “to search a house.” Although we often use “ransack” today to describe the actions of burglars, when the word first appeared in English in the 14th century, it was primarily used to mean to search a person or house for something stolen from another person. But whether the motive is law enforcement or law-breaking, the result of “ransacking” has always usually been a mess.

So, put that all together and we have “ramshackle,” originally describing a thing, place or person that appeared to have been “ransacked” and was left shaky, run-down and barely able to stand.

1 comment to Ramshackle

  • Carl

    Once again, good job. I’ll be looking up “scumbag” next. I think I already know the origin, but I’ll see how close I am.

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