Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Lose Your Marbles

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 2, 2011

We all know that marbles is a child’s game.  It was first recorded by that name in 1709, however, the game itself existed as far back as the 13th century in Germany where the game was known as tribekugeln.  Back in the day, marbles was played with small balls of polished marble or alabaster but over the centuries, the game has remained the same even if the marbles themselves have changed.

The word marble is Middle English from the Old French word marbre which is from the Latin word marmor which is from the Greek word marmaros and marmaros means “shining stone.”  

But to say that someone has lost his or her marbles is to mean that the speaker believes the other person has suddenly become mentally incompetent for an undetermined length of time.  On February 11, 1995 the Pittsburg Post-Gazette wrote about former American President Bill Clinton and the baseball strike with an opening paragraph that stated:

As you all know, President Clinton lost his marbles earlier this week.  While the rest of the nation struggled with the profound problems that truly plague humanity — war, famine, death, pestilence and the O.J. trial — Mr. Bill concentrated on ending the inane major-league baseball strike.  And to make matters worse, he failed miserably.

From yesterday’s entry at Idiomation what it means to “go bananas” and on May 10, 1975 the Youngstown Vindicator ran a story by William Safire courtesy of the New York Times News Service.  It was entitled, “The Catch 22 Question — Did Nixon Go Bananas?”  The story read in part:

There is a delicious inconsistency in the Nixon story: How could an intelligent man, a canny politician, blunder so egregiously in covering up a foolish crime — unless he had indeed lost his marbles?  The historian who figures this out might earn a niche in history himself.

Losing one’s marbles is a serious matter for young children.  In fact, the seriousness of the matter was recounted in the St. Petersburg Times on June 11, 1939 when the newspaper reported on “Marbles Lost in 1863 Found.”

In 1863, eight-year-old Augustus Pigman lost 16 prized marbles when he tossed them under a porch stoop to keep them from the hands of pursuing playmates.  Workmen demolishing the building a few days ago learned of the long lost marbles, recovered and returned all of them.  At 84, retired druggist Pigman is beyond the “knuckle down” age but will send the marbles to his three-year-old son in New York.

Now back in the 1920s, if someone lost control, it was said that the person had ‘let his marbles go with the monkeywhich was taken from a story about a boy whose marbles were carried off by a monkey.  And as far back as 1902, to “lose your taw’” meant to “go crazy.” 

As a side note, a taw is a large, fancy marble used for shooting and an “alley taw” is made of alabaster.

And so, while Idiomation was unable to find any published connection between marbles and mental instability prior to 1902, Idiomation did find a comic ballad published on January 28, 1871 entitled, “A Horse Chestnut or a Chestnut Horse.”  The ballad satirizes the philosophy of logic and shows how language that is thought to be rigid in meaning can take on other meanings depending on the context in which language is used.

An Eton stripling, training for the law
A dunce at syntax – but a dab at taw
One happy Christmas laid upon the shelf
His cap and gown and store of learned pelf.

The ballad shows how a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse can be made to appear to be the same thing if one chooses one’s words carefully and specifically.  And with that, it’s easy to see how someone could lose their marbles in such a case.

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2 Responses to “Lose Your Marbles”

  1. Great post Elyse. My marbles are all intact. When I was young we collected them, played them and the cats eye was the prize. Many kids lost their marbles.

  2. […] Idiomation […]

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