Final Word

What happened to my marbles?


With President Jacob Zuma in the eye of the present  political storm, is it appropriate to suggest that he has lost his marbles?

I leave it to readers to decide for themselves whether it is either appropriate or in good taste to claim that the head of state does not have all his ducks in a row or “lost it.”

He is, however not the first head of state in office to fall victim of such an assessment. It has happened in fairly recent history to two American Presidents – Nixon in 1975 and Clinton in 1995.

The Nixon incident has some echoes in the present South African political storm. In May 1975 the New York Times wrote: “How could an intelligent man, a canny politician, blunder so egregiously in covering up a foolish crime — unless he had indeed lost his marbles?” 

That it was two American presidents that it happened too, should be no surprise since most sources claim that the idiom was first coined in the US. However, that claim is not beyond all doubt.

What is sure?

What is, however, beyond doubt is that the expression is nowadays mostly used to describe a situation where someone has lost full control of his/her mental faculties, be it because of old age, buckling under stress or rage.

But, let’s start from the very beginning in ancient times. The roots of the expression lie in the children’s-game of marbles played with little glass or metal balls. The game was first recorded by the name marbles in 1709.

However, the game itself existed as far back as the 13th century in Germany, known as tribekugeln.  Back then, marbles was played with small balls of polished marble or alabaster and to this day the came in Afrikaans is called albasters.

The word Marble arrived in Middle English from the Old French word marbre which got it from Latin’s marmor, from Greek’s marmaros and marmaros, meaning “shining stone.” 

From the mid-19th century 'marbles' also took on a broader meaning to indicate material ‘personal effects’ or things from the French word meubles, as it remains in Afrikaans, for 'furniture.'

From the 1920s onward two other US expressions became established - 'to pick up the marbles' and 'to pick up one's marbles, meaning  'to carry off the honours or prizes' and 'to withdraw from activity or  game, causing it to end, as an equivalent for the Standard English expression “to take your ball and go home.”.

Figurative use

The figurative use in the expression to lose your marbles, appears to have migrated from the image of a forlorn child having lost his prized playthings.

An 1886 quote from an American newspaper article reads: “He has roamed the block all morning like a boy who had lost his marbles.”

Three years later, in 1889, a New Zealand newspaper carried the following passage: ”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.”

By 1927, the loss of sanity meaning was as the dominant one that an edition of American Speech defined the term unambiguously as someone who is mentally deficient, with “There goes a man who doesn't have all his marbles,” as an example.


by Piet Coetzer

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