‘Lose Your Marbles’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on July 3, 2023

Did someone tell you not to 'lose your marbles', and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

'Lose your marbles' or 'lose one's marbles' is a phrase that means to go crazy. 'Marbles' is used to refer to one's mental capacity, so to 'lose one's marbles' is to lose one's mental capabilities.

What Does 'Lose Your Marbles' Mean?

To 'lose one's marbles' is an idiom that means to go insane. If you tell someone not to 'lose your marbles,' you're telling them not to go crazy.

You can change the word 'lose' tense depending on the context.

For example, you could say:

  • 'lost your marbles.'
  • 'losing your marbles.'

You can also change the possessive pronoun.

For instance, you could say:

  • 'Lose his marbles.'
  • 'Lose her marbles.'
  • 'Lose my marbles.'

Where Does 'Lose Your Marbles' Come From?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the use of the word 'marbles' to refer to someone's common sense or mental faculties dates back to 1927 in American slang.

However, it also points to the potential for this usage to come from the earlier slang of marbles meaning "personal effects, furniture, 'the goods.' This meaning (from the mid-1800s) is a corrupt translation of the French word for furniture, 'meubles.'

The Etymology of 'Marbles'

The word 'marble' means:

  • A type of crystalline limestone often used in monuments and sculptures dates back to the 14th century.
  • The use of the word to describe the small balls used in a children's game is attested from the late 17th century.

The first recorded use of the name 'marbles' for the game is from 1709. However, the game is much older, dating back to the 13th century. The balls were originally made out of polished marble or alabaster and then eventually made with clay. The marbles we know and love today, made of glass with a colored swirl, first appeared around the 1840s.

Humphrey Bogart and 'Losing One's Marbles'

The film The Caine Mutiny from 1954, starring Humphrey Bogart, links the concept of insanity with marbles. While under stress in court, his character restlessly plays with a set of metal balls.

Because of his compelling performance, many have thought that this is the source of the phrase 'lose your marbles.' However, it's known to have existed before the mid-20th century.

The Evolution of 'Losing One's Marbles'

Though there has been some discussion about 'losing one's marbles' being related to the loss of Greek artwork in the early 19th century, however, the more likely story is that it's related to the children's game.

It appears that 'losing one's marbles' meant 'getting angry or frustrated' during the late 19th century. This notion could come from the fact that a child losing their marbles could become irritated and upset.

An example of this appears in The Tuapeka Times from New Zealand in 1889:

"For 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."

It seems to have been in America that the phrase transitioned from meaning:

'to become angry' to 'to lose one's mind.'

An 1898 story from an Ohio newspaper named The Portsmouth Times has the following sentence:

"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."

Examples of 'Lose Your Marbles' In Sentences

How would 'lose your marbles' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • "Johnny was always smarter than me. Now I'm afraid he's losing his marbles."
  • "I overheard Gwen accusing Sarah of having lost her marbles. I couldn't believe my ears. Where have her manners gone?"
  • "Don't lose your marbles, Tim. I won the bet fair and square, and you know it."
  • "Just because someone was born with a silver spoon in their mouth doesn't mean that they can't lose their marbles."
  • "I swear I'm about to lose my marbles. Didn't you hear me tell you to take the trash out?"
  • "I just about lost my marbles when I saw a grizzly bear walking down the road to our campsite. That's when you know it's time to high-tail it out of town!"

Other Ways to Say 'Lose Your Marbles'

What other words and phrases are used to refer to people who have gone crazy or don't have their wits about them?

Here are some options:

  • Basket case
  • The lights are on, but no one is home
  • Not all there
  • Not in one's right mind
  • Go bananas
  • Go batty
  • Go cuckoo
  • Go haywire

Final Thoughts About 'Lose Your Marbles'

When you 'lose your marbles,' it means you've gone crazy. This can either be used in a casual way, or sometimes you will hear it used to refer to someone who has actually lost their mental faculties.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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