The other day I and a few friends were talking about childhood games, particularly Jacks and marbles, and rather glumly concluded that they are probably no longer to be found in school playgrounds around the country, not least for ‘Elf and Safety reasons. Interestingly, though, in times when people turned a blind eye (pun intended) to the dangers that small balls of coloured glass may pose, the game of marbles spawned a couple of phrases that we use today.
To knuckle down is to apply yourself earnestly to the task in hand. At first blush, this everyday phrase would seem to have nothing to do with marbles. But the clue comes in a definition of the verb knuckle and the phrase knuckle down in the ambitiously titled Dictionary of all the words commonly used in the English tongue by Thomas Dyche and William Pardon, published in 1740. “A particular phrase used by lads at a play called taw, where they frequently say “Knuckle down to your taw or fit your hand exactly in the place where your marble lies””.
For the uninitiated the taw is a game of marbles or in some parts of the United States is a large, fancy marble used for shooting. To knuckle down is to pinch the marble in your index finger and then flick it with your thumb to shoot it.
The same dictionary then goes on to give another definition for knuckle down, namely “to stoop, bend, yield, comply with or submit to”. This meaning has disappeared today – instead we use the phrase knuckle under to convey that sense, although it is unclear when that change occurred. Knuckle under was being used to convey a sense of submission by 1852 as this newspaper article shows, “is it for him to knuckle under to the bedizened aristocracy and soldiery of Europe?” By 1864, however, knuckle down was being defined in Webster’s Dictionary in the sense that we use it today, “to apply oneself earnestly or vigorously”.
Another phrase associated with marbles is for keeps, which has the connotation that the winner takes all and the result stands. It is also suggestive of a contest which will be in earnest. A variant of the game which was all the rage in the middle of the 19th century was called keepies or for keeps, where the winner took all the marbles in the game for themselves. The Ladies’ Repository of 1861 records this conversation between mother and son, “I loaned him one of mine to play with while he put that in the ring…he and I played for keeps and I was the best player and won all of his”. Around the same time fighting for keeps was attributed to army slang meaning to fight with deadly earnest.
And then there is to lose your marbles, a phrase suggesting you are losing your sanity. Perhaps the most graphic portrayal of the connection between marbles and sanity was Humphrey Bogart’s marble-jangling Queeg in the Caine Mutiny. But perhaps we are being a bit too literal here. In the 19th century one meaning of marbles, coming from the French noun meubles, was personal effects, goods or stuff. It may just be that the origin of this phrase came from the despair and panic that accompanied someone losing their possessions. Another 19th century meaning was testicles – something you world certainly not want to lose!