What Is The Origin Of (296)?…

From marbles to manslaughter

Our language is sprinkled with phrases, some more exotic than others, that are designed to encompass the whole range of possibilities. Some include “from A to Z” or the American “from soup to nuts” or the more intellectual and assonant “from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf”. Another to add to the list is “from marbles to manslaughter”. The idea of the latter, I assume, is to pair one of the most innocuous pastimes, a game of marbles, although I can recall occasions when feelings ran high, with a heinous crime, that of killing another human being. Manslaughter, though, in the scale of crimes does not top murder, but you can get the sense, and the alliteration makes it more memorable.

One of the frustrations with etymological research is that we are dependent upon the written word rather than the spoken vernacular. It is likely that many words and phrases were in regular, if not daily, use well before any wordsmith deigned to immortalise it on paper with their quill. One of the great working-class movements of the first half of the 19th century was the Chartists. Their meetings, rallies, demonstrations and petitions were eagerly reported, speeches often verbatim in the newspapers of the time for the edification of their readership. As the orators were mostly from and the bulk of their audience certainly were from the working classes and spoke the argot associated with those classes, it is no surprise that some phrases appear for the first time in print in reports of their proceedings.

The Irish Chartist leader, James Bronterre O’Brien, addressed a meeting in London on March 16, 1839. According to a report in the Standard two days later he claimed that “if he should see the petition signed by millions, he would consider that he had a right to try any measures from marbles to manslaughter for carrying out that petition”. His declamation met with vehement applause. We should assume that his audience knew what he meant and that it was not an obscure Irishism.

A writer always anticipates a review with some trepidation. G C Munro, author of a three volume work entitled de Montfort or the Old English Nobleman, may not have been too enamoured by this savaging at the hands of a critic writing for The London Gazette in 1842; “these circumstances form the ground for an apology which he begs to offer for a work disfigured by inaccuracies and excrescences; mongrel in kind, meagre in design, yet so heterogenous as regards its contents that it literally comprises a sample of everything – from marbles to manslaughter”. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.   

Six years later, the phrase cropped up in the anonymously penned The wooing and the wedding of Ermel Franz. It seems to have been a been a bit of a steamy read as the passage that features our phrase had the eponymous hero listening “with a throbbing heart and burning brow. From marbles to manslaughter, he was just now ready for anything”.  The phrase also had something of the raffish about it, appearing in Renton Nicholson’s An Autobiography from 1860; “about the year 1831 or 1832, play [gambling] first became common. Harding Ackland…an inveterate and spirited player at anything, from marbles to manslaughter as the saying goes, opened the first shilling hall in the metropolis”.

It was not a phrase commonly used, at least in print, but makes a welcome change as an alternative to encompass a wide range of possibilities.

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