Pronunciation: ræm-shæk-êl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: Rickety, run-down, dilapidated.
Notes: This good word is another in our series of words that are not what they seem to be. It has nothing to do with shackling male sheep but rather refers to the state of repair in which buildings are sometimes found, e.g. a ramshackle cottage by the sea. It is a lexical orphan without even a verb to its name and that despite the fact that it started out its life as a verb.
In Play: Even though this word is most often associated with buildings, by no means is its metaphoric range limited to architectural objectives: "Given the ramshackle organization of his office, it is a wonder he can locate anything in it." You must know someone whose ramshackle appearance would by far overburden the epithet "casual".
Word History: Tammany Hall had less corruption than the history of today's word. It is a back-formation of ramshackled, a dialectal corruption of ranshackled, itself a corruption of ransackled, the past participle of ransackle "to ransack". This last word is the frequentative (indicating repeated activity) variant of Middle English ransaken "to pillage", which went on to become ransack. This verb was ultimately borrowed from Old Norse rannsaka "house search" comprising rann "house" + *saka "to search, seek." So it is no etymological accident that a ramshackle house looks as though it had been frequently ransacked by Vikings. The reason the [s] of ransackled became [sh] in ramshackle is probably because the adjective is so closely associated with shacks.
–Dr. Goodword, Alpha Dictionary
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This is one of those words I always wondered about. Seemed odd that something would be described in terms that suggested being chained to a goat, but now I see that's not the case.
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