lose your marbles

When you lose your marbles, you’ve lost your mind, or gone insane, or part of your brain is missing. In any case, your mind isn’t functioning as it should.

This American phrase arose in the late 1800s, probably from the game of marbles, which was common at the time. To play was always to run the risk of losing all one’s marbles and the result might easily be anger, frustration, and despair. An early citation of this figurative usage is found in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat of August 1886: “He has roamed the block all morning like a boy who had lost his marbles.”

It’s a small step from “anger and despair” to the wider meaning of doing something “stupid or senseless.” All the early citations convey the sense of loss and the consequent reaction to it, but by 1927, the “loss of sanity” meaning had won over “anger and despair.” 

This transition to the “losing one’s mind” meaning is shown in the Ohio newspaper The Portsmouth Times, which 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 1954 film, The Caine Mutiny, linked insanity with marbles when Humphrey Bogart showed his character, the demented Lieutenant Commander Queeg, in court and under stress, restlessly jiggling a set of metal balls. Bogart’s performance was so good that many people have assumed the film to be the source of the phrase.

In the mid-1800s, “marbles” was also used to mean “personal effects,” or “stuff,” which derived from the French word meubles, meaning “furniture.” It’s easy to see how that could be expanded to mean “mind furniture.”

One theory suggests that “losing one’s mind” derives from the Elgin Marbles. These sculptures were taken from Athens by Lord Elgin in 1806. The idea was that the expression arose from the loss of the artworks by the Greeks, or their subsequent loss at sea when the ship transporting them sank. An imaginative theory, but there’s no evidence to support it.

Lately, the expression has been shortened to simply “losing it.” But, just to confuse things, “losing it” also can mean losing one’s temper. So you’ll have to take your pick among anger, despair, and insanity.

That’s a terrible choice to make, so just DON’T lose your marbles!


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