Q: Your discussion of “bats in the belfry” reminded me of the Pink Floyd lyrics “Toys in the attic I am crazy, / Truly gone fishing. / They must have taken my marbles away.” Would you care to comment on any of these?
A: Like “bats in the belfry,” the expressions in that Pink Floyd song, “The Trial,” are references to being crazy.
If people say you have “toys in the attic,” you’ve “gone fishing,” or you’ve “lost your marbles,” they mean you’re bonkers.
The song was written by Roger Waters and Bob Ezrin for the 1979 album (and rock opera) The Wall.
Let’s look at these loony expressions one at a time, starting with “toys in the attic.”
Since the early 19th century, “attic” has been used as a slang word for the head. (Seems appropriate, no?) Green’s Dictionary of Slang records this whimsical couplet from 1803: “Cram not your attics / With dry mathematics.”
Green’s says that “to have toys in the attic” means “to be eccentric, to be insane, to be simple, childlike.” The dictionary’s first citation is from John Sayles’s novel Union Dues (1977): “Another one with toys in the attic.”
But the expression is at least a couple of years older than that. “Toys in the Attic” was the title track on an album released by Aerosmith in 1975, and it’s about lunacy all right.
A less loony phrase, “gone fishing,” is sometimes used to mean out of it or not quite all there. We’ve been unable to document this usage in any standard slang reference books, but it’s alive and well on several Internet sites and in discussion groups.
The usage seems logical to us, since “gone fishing” is widely used as a whimsical way of saying “absent,” “temporarily closed,” or “on vacation.” If “gone fishing” can mean physically absent, why not mentally absent as well?
On to “marbles,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says is used colloquially to mean “mental faculties; brains; common sense.”
This sense of “marbles” originated in North America in the early 20th century, the OED says, noting that it usually appears in the phrases “to lose one’s marbles, to have (also not have) all one’s marbles, and variants.”
The OED’s first citation for the usage is from George Vere Hobart’s novel It’s Up to You (1902): “I see-sawed back and forth between Clara J. and the smoke-holder like a man who is shy some of his marbles.”
And since we never pass up a chance to quote P. G. Wodehouse, here’s a citation from his novel Cocktail Time (1958): “Do men who have got all their marbles go swimming in lakes with their clothes on?”
We’d better quit, while we still have a few marbles left.
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