Q From Mike Pataky: Can you tell me the origin of the expression, He has lost his marbles, meaning gone mad or lost his reason or done something really stupid? Being a Londoner myself, I suspected it might be a Cockney expression but I recently heard it in Peter Pan where the uncle (who is not quite ‘compos mentis’) is said to have found his lost marbles. Is this the origin?
A There’s no mention of marbles in J M Barrie’s original 1904 play, Peter Pan. Might you have been confused by Hook, the film that was made from it in 1991? That includes the exchange:
Peter: Ha ha ha! He really did lose his marbles, didn’t he?
Tub: Yeah, he lost them good!
which clangs discordantly on my British ear, since lost them good is an Americanism, not natively known this side of the big water, and therefore an expression that the Scottish Barrie could not have used. To lose one’s marbles is equally American and the same comment applies.
It is, as it happens, pretty much contemporary with the play. The earliest example given in the standard references is from It’s Up to You; A Story of Domestic Bliss, by George V Hobart, dated 1902: “I see-sawed back and forth between Clara J. and the smoke-holder like a man who is shy some of his marbles.”
That certainly sounds like the modern meaning of marbles, which as you say refers to one’s sanity. But in an earlier appearance, the writer used it to mean angry, not insane (mad, that is, in the common US sense rather than the British one). It was printed in the Lima News of Ohio in July 1898: “He picked up the Right Honorable Mr Hughes on a technicality, and although that gentleman is reverential in appearance as Father Abraham and as patient as Job, he had, to use an expression of the street, lost his ‘marbles’ most beautifully and stomped on the irascible Harmon, very much à la Bull in the china shop.”
The origin must surely come from the boys’ game of marbles, which was very common at the time. To play was always to run the risk of losing all one’s marbles and the result might easily be anger, frustration, and despair. That would account for the 1898 example and it’s hardly a step from there to the wider meaning of mad — to do something senseless or stupid.