ORIGIN early 17th cent.: via French from Italian gazzetta, originally gazeta de la novità (because the news-sheet sold for a gazeta, a Venetian coin of small value)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Marblelous Marvels...

Marbles fascinate me. Although I was vaguely aware of their existence during my childhood and youth, it wasn't until I lived in France that I discovered how amazing they are.  There, marbles are significant both as objects that people collect and play with as well as vocabulary that colorfully and abundantly enriches the French language.  I observed with amusement when my three sons, without any guidance or input from their American mother, became interested in playing marbles, collecting marbles, trading marbles, and becoming marble experts by the time they trod up the hill to our neighborhood
école.  I wondered what all the excitement and fuss were about until I took the time to discover that marbles embody a world of color, beauty, history, fun, and... language.

Two expressions using the word "marble" exist in English - think of "pick up one's marbles and go home," indicating that someone doesn't want to play or participate anymore, or "lose one's marbles," meaning that a poor soul is suffering from either a nervous breakdown or just can't think straight and has lost his or her bearings.  The French word for marble, bille, however, crops up in so many ways and so frequently, that expressions abound.  Let's start from the top:
bille en tête - head-on
avoir une bonne bille - have an honest face
faire une drôle de bille - look weird
bille de clown - have a funny face
bille de billard - bald
avoir les yeux plus ronds que des billes - naïf, even stupid, definitely clueless

Continue with intelligence or ability:
toucher sa bille - to be darn good at something, to know a thing or two about something
avoir des billes pour - to have some clues about something

Or on the contrary:
ne me prenez pas pour une bille - I'm not stupid!

And finally, in life and in love:
retirer ses billes - get out of the game, pull out
rendre ses billes - to turn it all in and quit
placer ses billes - to invest, to bet, to take a risk
à billes égales - level playing field

I'm pleased to note that every September, on the playground of the école primaire where I teach, students come back to school with their marbles:  they play, they trade, they admire, they collect, they categorize, they win, they lose.  When I tell them that the ancient Greeks and Romans played marbles, the children are pleased.  When they realize that their teacher has her own marble collection, they beg me to bring it to school so I can "show and tell."  In 2009, boys and girls alike are true enthusiasts when it comes to being experts. When it comes to marbles, ils touchent leur bille!


  1. J'ai appris plein d'expressions que je ne connaissais pas: est-ce à dire que les billes sont un jeu plus du Nord que du Sud de la France? Ou plus breton?

    Dans le Sud, filles et garçons jouent aux osselets... mais ne les collectionnent pas. Les garçons jouent aux billes, mais sans plus. En revanche, ils parlent de "boules", de "boulard" (la plus grosse des billes).
    Il est vrai aussi que dans le Sud, les boules qui importent, de père en fils, ce sont celles de la pétanque... et la boule la plus petite du jeu, celle qui est en bois et non en métal, s'appelle "le cochonnet".Les jeux de pétanque existent même pour les enfants qui savent à peine marcher, en plastique bien évidemment.

    Autant je me souviens de mémorables parties de pétanque en famille ou avec les amis, jusqu'aux heures bienheureuses de l'été quand le soleil se couche à 23h, même dans les vallées encaissées des Pyrénées Nord (le versant Sud, c'est l'Espagne), autant je ne me souviens pas du tout de jeux de billes, ni d'avoir vu mon frère et ses amis y jouer.

    "T'as perdu la boule?", c'est demander à quelqu'un s'il a perdu la tête, mais la référence est la boule de pétanque.

    Comme quoi, malgré sa petite taille (plus petite que le Texas ou la Californie), la France aussi a sa ligne Mason/Dixon: billes/pétanque!

  2. Jane, your sister Anne told me about your blog and she's right, I do enjoy it! I just wanted to tell you that I have a small bowl of marbles on my bookshelf whose sole purpose is to remind me that I have *not* lost my marbles! :)
    Lisa is roommates at U.T. with my daughter Madeline. And I'm pretty sure I met you at Lisa's recital. at U.T. last year. Love your sister and your niece! And congrats on a great blog. mine is www.imaramblingal.blogspot.com, visit anytime!

  3. Thanks, Camille, for your comment. I'm finding out more and more about marbles as I continue to work on a story. Ever thought about painting any? btw, I visited imaramblingal and enjoyed it very much. I'll definitely check in from time to time to see your art work. I didn't realize that you were a painter although I've heard about Madeline for years now!

  4. Hola como esta amigos? yo se la tema es differente pero quise compartir con usted!excursiones en estambul

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