Original Bunn has been searching all over for her box of marbles for about two weeks now. As I did a massive clean-up and ‘throw out’ in her room recently, I have been accused of ‘losing’ them and have defended myself by pointing out her dreadful habit of accumulating so much clutter that it is impossible to find anything in her room.


I just dug around in the nether-regions of my freezer looking for something to make for supper and, under a box of fish fingers …

[Q] From Mike Pataky: Can you tell me the origin of the expression, He has lost his marbles, meaning gone mad or lost his reason or done something really stupid? Being a Londoner myself, I suspected it might be a Cockney expression but I recently heard it in Peter Pan where the uncle (who is not quite ‘compos mentis’) is said to have found his lost marbles. Is this the origin?
[A] There’s no mention of marbles in J M Barrie’s original 1904 play, Peter Pan. Might you have been confused by Hook, the film that was made from it in 1991? That includes the exchange:
Peter: Ha ha ha! He really did lose his marbles, didn’t he?
Tub: Yeah, he lost them good!
which clangs discordantly on my British ear, since lost them good is an Americanism, not natively known this side of the big water, and therefore an expression that the Scottish Barrie could not have used. To lose one’s marbles is equally American and the same comment applies.
It is, as it happens, pretty much contemporary with the play. The earliest example given in the standard references is from It’s Up to You; A Story of Domestic Bliss, by George V Hobart, dated 1902: “I see-sawed back and forth between Clara J. and the smoke-holder like a man who is shy some of his marbles.”
That certainly sounds like the modern meaning of marbles, which as you say refers to one’s sanity. But in an earlier appearance, the writer used it to mean angry, not insane (mad, that is, in the common US sense rather than the British one). It was printed in the Lima News of Ohio in July 1898: “He picked up the Right Honorable Mr Hughes on a technicality, and although that gentleman is reverential in appearance as Father Abraham and as patient as Job, he had, to use an expression of the street, lost his ‘marbles’ most beautifully and stomped on the irascible Harmon, very much à la Bull in the china shop.”
The origin must surely come from the boys’ game of marbles, which was very 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. That would account for the 1898 example and it’s hardly a step from there to the wider meaning of mad — to do something senseless or stupid.

From http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-los1.htm


13 Comments Add yours

  1. brian says:

    there is some sweet irony to finding your marbles in the ice box…

  2. nrhatch says:


    It’s always the last place you’d think to look!

    1. theonlycin says:

      Yes, now if I can just try and find my wedding ring …

  3. granny1947 says:

    Marbles in the deepfreeze…yep…you have lost the plot!!!

    1. theonlycin says:

      *asks Supagran for a knitting needle with which to stab granny1947 in the eye*

  4. carina says:

    My freezer is a disaster area, but never have I looked for my marbles there. But all in all she was right, you did lose them – in more ways than one 🙂

    1. theonlycin says:

      Don’t rub it in Carina ;p

  5. adair says:

    I tidied up one day and a while later opened the fridge….to find my slippers neatly put away!

    1. theonlycin says:

      hahaha … was there wine involved Adair?

  6. halfp1nt says:

    Bwahahaha, definitely losing the plot, Cin!
    But don’t worry, my Giant Rat once put his ID book in the Provita biscuit container. 😛

    1. theonlycin says:

      hehe Shorty, how long until he found it?

  7. adeeyoyo says:

    Heeheehee, we are all prone to distraction. I have been known to put my keys in the ‘fridge once, lol!

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