Losing one's marbles

The language of madness

Some of Allegro’s assignments can be more demanding than others and the expression ‘I’m going to lose my marbles’ happened to crop up one afternoon at the office. This, of course, was met with laughter followed by a curiosity about where the phrase ‘to lose one’s marbles’ actually comes from. The answer was quite surprising and rather complex.

The story goes that the word ‘lumber’ was widely used in England until about the mid-20th century as a metaphor for the contents of one’s mind. The word lumber in this sense meant unused pieces of furniture. The metaphor portrayed the mind as a room that was cluttered by old tables and chairs, which obstructed its proper use. Eighteenth century British statesman Lord Chesterfield, for example, once wrote that ‘many great readers load their memories without exercising their judgments, and make lumber-rooms of their heads, instead of furnishing them usefully.’ Lumber therefore meant furniture, and referred to knowledge, or lack thereof.

In England from about the mid-19th century, people had started using the word ‘marbles’ as a slang for furniture, after the French word ‘meubles’, literally meaning furniture. In America at about the same time, the word marbles had caught on as a metaphor for ‘wits’, and it is likely that losing one’s wits therefore evolved into losing one’s marbles.

Another good expression is ‘to be off one’s nut’. This probably originates from the use of the word nut as a metaphor for the head, i.e. to be off one’s head. This rapidly expanded into the stunning assortment of expressions we have today, such as to go nuts, nuttier than a squirrel, as nutty as a fruitcake, and so on.

Other great alternatives to describe madness are to be ‘away with the fairies’, have ‘bats in the belfry’, to ‘not be playing with a full deck of cards’ or that ‘the lights are on but no one is home’.

Some of my personal favourites are the ‘he’s an X short of a Y’ phrases, such as ‘he’s one sandwich short of a picnic’ or ‘she’s one apple short of a fruit basket’. Here, the opportunities are endless and our creativity is the only limit.

With such a wealth of options to choose from in the English language for just one simple word, it’s no wonder that we ‘lose our marbles’ every now and then.


Illustrasjon: Øystein Reigem