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The meaning and origin of the expression: Lose your marbles

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Lose your marbles

Meaning

Lose your wits.

Origin

Lose one's marblesTo 'lose one's marbles' is to lose one's mind. In the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny Humphrey Bogart linked insanity with marbles when he showed his character, the demented Lt. Cmdr. Queeg, restlessly jiggling a set of metal balls when under stress in court. Bogart's performance was so affecting that many have supposed the film to be the source of the phrase. It is American, but originated in the late 19th century, not the 1950s. The expression has now been shortened to simply 'losing it'. The point is that the person in question has, as in another earlier variant, 'a bit missing'. Perhaps 'marbles' meant 'mind' or 'wits' before 'lose one's marbles' was coined. That's worth investigation at least, so let's have a go.

Marbles are, of course, the little glass or metal balls that children use to play the eponymous game. From the mid 19th century 'marbles' was also used to mean 'personal effects', 'goods', or more generally 'stuff'. This latter meaning derives from the French word 'meubles', which means 'furniture'. From the 1920s onward two US expressions became established - 'to pick up the marbles' and 'to pick up one's marbles'. These mean 'to carry off the honours or prizes' and 'to withdraw from activity or game and cause it to cease' (like the UK variant 'take one's ball home'). 'Marbles' also meant testicles and has been used that way since at least the mid 19th century.

It has been suggested that the 'losing one's mind' meaning derives from the Elgin Marbles. These are the collection of sculptures, some from the Parthenon Frieze, which were taken from Athens by Lord Elgin in 1806. The supposition is that the expression derives from the loss of the artworks by the Greeks, or their subsequent loss at sea when the ship that was transporting them sank. An interesting theory, but no more than that; there's no evidence to support the idea.

It's more 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. What is common in all the early citations is the sense of loss and the consequent reaction to it. By 1927, the loss of sanity meaning had won out and an edition of American Speech defined the term unambiguously:

"Marbles, doesn't have all his (verb phrase), mentally deficient. 'There goes a man who doesn't have all his marbles.'"

See also: knuckle down.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.