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!