Have you ever been sitting at the kitchen table doing your homework while your mom or dad frantically searches through the cabinets for something? At first, it may be amusing, but soon the clanging of the pots and pans distracts you from your homework.

You finally ask what he or she is looking for, and you’re amazed when they say what it is. Why? Because it’s been sitting on the counter the whole time in plain sight! When you point this out, your mom or dad exclaims, “I must be losing my marbles!”

Of course, this phrase is just as puzzling as searching for something that was sitting in plain sight. What does it mean? Did you even realize your parents had marbles?

Losing your marbles doesn’t mean you actually had marbles that you can now no longer find. Instead, it’s an idiom. That’s a phrase whose meaning doesn’t match up with the meaning of the actual words used in the phrase.

If you say you’re losing your marbles, you’re claiming that you’re going crazy or losing your mind. The exact origin of this phrase is unclear. What we do know, though, is that it’s been around a long time.

Experts believe losing one’s marbles originated in the United States in the late 1800s. Marbles — those little glass or metal balls children use to play a variety of games — were popular toys long ago. The word “marbles,” though, was also used to refer to one’s personal belongings or “stuff.”

Some people believe “marbles” eventually came to be associated with one’s mind or wits or common sense, too. Since marbles were important playthings and one’s personal belongings or “stuff” would also be very important, one can see how one’s mind or wits or common sense could be associated with these other important things.

One can imagine a young child playing with his favorite marbles around the turn of the 20th century. Marbles could be carried easily in pockets, so he could take the game with him wherever he went. If he were to lose one or more of these prized possessions, he would certainly feel a sense of loss and likely a sense of anger or despair. He might even appear crazy as he searched frantically for the missing marbles.

When losing one’s marbles first became a phrase, it was often used in two ways. Sometimes it was used to mean one was angry. At other times, it was used to mean one was going crazy. Both of these uses match up with the image of a young child losing a precious plaything. Over time, the meaning of losing one’s mind eventually won out.

 

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