Ramshackle is a fascinating word. It isn’t uncommon; in fact, it is quite commonly used in discussions, writings, and other forms of communication. But, again, it occurred to me that I didn’t know where the word came from, and I suspected that many of us who use this word regularly are in the same boat. So, it was off to the reference materials.
It turns out that ramshackle probably had its beginning as ranshackle in the early days of the 19th century. Online Etymology.com, to which I find myself turning quite regularly, tells us that the word is actually older than the 19th century. They trace it to the 17th century and refer to it as an “alteration” of the word ransacked, a word which means to search a house or pillage it. I usually identify the pillage term to it, picturing things thrown around, broken, or just plain destroyed. Police reports frequently talk about a house which has been broken into and ransacked.
It’s not hard, therefore, to make the jump from ransacked to ramshackle. Such a building is in need of massive repair, and may, well, be beyond repair. I have to be careful, however, in making a judgmental comment about a building by calling it a ramshackle building. It may well be someone’s home and the only building they can afford. Compared to other options it may be a castle to them.
When I was in elementary school there was a girl in my class who lived in a house which was truly ramshackle. It was unpainted, there were tiles missing on the roof, stairs were falling apart, and (although I was never in the house) the interior was difficult to imagine. A friend and I did a study (remember this was fifth grade) of the housing in our community. I took pictures of some of the new houses. I also took a picture of this girl’s home, and used it as a comparison. I went to her before I handed it in and asked if it was a problem for her. “Heck no,” she said. “The guy who owns the house refuses to do anything to fix it up. My father has been tempted to burn it down.” However, I have always regretted that I chose to “publish” that picture. I realized soon after that it was inappropriate to single her family out as living in poverty. I’ve always thought I should search her out and apologize.
There is also something photogenic about ramshackle buildings. They are a visual reminder of days gone by when something was beautiful but has deteriorated into something which is regrettable. A year or so ago my colleague, John McIntyre, the author of the blog “You Don’t Say”, published a photo of a house in his Kentucky hometown. I have held on to it and treasured it as being one of the most beautiful photos I have seen relating to 19th century architecture. Some might call it ramshackle; I call it beautiful. It is loosely made and rickety. It lacks a coat of paint. The porch is falling off. But it is so easy to imagine the family that lived in this house, how they relished the times they had together and watched their family grow up. Maybe the point is that the building is ramshackle, but the lives that took place there need not have been.
Photo Credit: Stock Clips & Videos