Who moved my marbles?


I subscribe to a weekly periodical which describes the origin of many well worn phrases.  Today’s phrase has held special fascination for the past 15 years dating to a dream I had back in 1994. I can still recall in vivid detail when “I lost my marbles.”

marbles1 I was back in my old home on University Drive which was our residence when my children were in preschool.  In the dream I was rushing like mad to gather up important things to evacuate in advance of a huge monsoon which was headed our way.

I was upstairs in Braddock’s room trying to pack some clothing.  When I opened his top drawer thousands of marbles came spilling out and bouncing down the staircase.  I was frantically trying to gather them up with little success.

It just so happened that in 1994 I was struggling with a divorce and  growing determination to change careers and move to a new location. What rich symbolism.  In retrospect, I realize now I was LOSING MY MARBLES in every sense of the word.

Actually most sources agree it’s likely that ‘marbles’ was coined as a slang term meaning ‘wits/common sense’, as a reference to the marbles that youngsters play with. The notion of ‘losing something that is important to you’ appears to have migrated from the image of a forlorn child having lost his prized playthings. An early citation of this figurative usage is found in an August 1886 copy of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:

He has roamed the block all morning like a boy who had lost his marbles.

During the late 19th century, ‘losing one’s marbles’ began to be used to mean ‘getting frustrated or angry’. This reference from New Zealand was printed in The Tuapeka Times, in August 1889:

For I tell you that no boy ever lost his marbles more irrevocably than you and I will lose our self-respect if we remain to take part in a wordy discussion that ends in a broil. [a quarrel]

This transition to the ‘losing one’s mind’ meaning began in the US around the same time and the Ohio newspaper The Portsmouth Times, reported a story in April 1898 that referred to marbles as a synonym for mental capacity:

Prof. J. M. Davis, of Rio Grande college, was selected to present J. W Jones as Gallia’s candidate, but got his marbles mixed and did as much for the institution of which he is the noted head as he did for his candidate.

The expression took a little time to mature and was used in both ‘anger’ and ‘sanity’ senses for a few decades. Today it is rare to spot a group of children playing marbles.   In fact you don’t see them out playing period.

I can still remember the bag of prized marbles I kept on my bedside table – it contained hundreds of beautiful “cat-eyes” and a few of those steel ones I won in a game with Heard Murphy – what were they called?

I lost them a long time ago, but I’m grateful to “A phrase a week” for bringing back a fond memory that might never again have come to mind in this life.

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