Saturday, 25 August 2018

we do hope marbles turns up

A concerned citizen went down an idiomatic rabbit hole, attempting to recreate the roots of the expression of “having lost one’s marbles.” Very much adrift from a straightforward explanation, there are several layers of cultural intersections to be peeled back to arrive at the phrase’s etymology and meaning. From the late seventeenth century until the 1950s, the human mind was described as a lumber room—lumber metaphorically meaning unused furniture, a clutter and chaos of old, staid knowledge and anxieties that cluttered the brain and made it less limber.
While the notion that one’s memory banks can become full and new ideas and experiences can’t be imprinted until we’ve cleared out something old and useless is now largely stood to be incorrect, there is some truth to the perception that older, experienced people are sometimes slower recalling or processing information because there’s simply so much more of it to sift through. The idea of mind lumber seems utterly alien nowadays but if one reads carefully, we can find the dead metaphor employed by Arthur Conan Doyle and Virginia Woolfe. Drawing on the French word for furniture, les meubles—that is something movable as opposed to real estate, bien immobilier—as slang for household accoutrements in the late nineteenth century. Around the same time, reaching back to the earlier furniture metaphor for the contents of one’s head, marbles started being used as a substitute for wits—the idiom of “losing one’s marbles” outliving the slang senses that preceded it.