The Grammarphobia Blog

Knuckle down!

Q: I saw the word “mibsters” in an item in the Atlantic magazine about the British and World Marbles Championship. Am I right in assuming that it refers to people who play marbles?

A: Yes, a “mibster” is a marbles player (or shooter), and “mibbies” are marbles.

Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English has traced “mibbies” to Cockney schoolchildren’s slang of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But games of marbles go much, much farther back. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first published citation for the game dates from 1681, and refers to “the little round stones wherewith Children play, called Marbles.”

The marble the mibster shoots with is known as a “taw” – a word the OED traces back to 1709. The word “taw” has also been used over the years for (1) the game of marbles itself, and (2) the line from which the mibster shoots.

“Mibbie” and “mibbies” are also popular Scots lingo for “maybe,” as in “Mibbies aye, mibbies naw!”

Remember: Knuckle down! (This phrase, dating back to 1740, comes from the game of marbles, and originally referred to how a mibster’s hand was placed on the ground before shooting the taw.)

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