‘to make one’s marble(s) good’: meaning and origin

The colloquial New-Zealand and Australian phrase to make one’s marble(s) good means: to make a good impression on a person, to ingratiate oneself, to improve one’s position.

This phrase refers to the children’s game of marbles, in which the players take turns at shooting their own marble, with finger and thumb, at marbles inside a ring, trying to knock the marbles out of the ring to win them.

The meaning and origin of the phrase to make one’s marble(s) good were mentioned in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) of Wednesday 28th July 1993:

Did you know?
VANISHING sports: The game of marbles used to engross Australian boys huddled around rings scratched in their schoolyard dirt. Marbles became entrenched in our folklore and speech, as in: “pass in your marble” (to die, to give in); “make your marble good with the boss” (ingratiate yourself); “your marble’s good” (you are favorably positioned). Also from the game come the term “dibs” (marbles) and the saying “lost his dibs” (his sanity). A shooting marble used for knocking others out is a “taw”—also the term for the line from which play begins. Hence, “going back to taws” or “starting from taws” means starting over again, going back to basics. Where are the marbles players of the 1990s? Are they doing it on computer screens?

The earliest occurrences of the phrase to make one’s marble(s) good that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From the transcript of the cross-examination of a witness in a court case, published in The Colonist (Nelson, New Zealand) of Wednesday 13th May 1885:

Mr Reeves: If Mr Smythe swore that the call was made for the purpose of making my marble good, was it correct?
Witness: Of course not.

2-: From the Lyell Times, and Central Buller Gazette (Lyell, New Zealand) of Saturday 2nd October 1886:

From particulars received from a reliable source, we are placed in possession of the following information respecting the Champion Copper mine, Nelson. There are peculiar circumstances in connection with this illfated Company that many are not aware of and they are as follows: The first promoter, and afterwards legal manager of the Company, Mr A. D. Bayfield, was at one time manager of one of the branches of the National Bank of New Zealand on the Coast, the same gentleman is now official liquidator of the unfortunate Company; and it so happens that the bailiff in charge of the Company’s property on behalf of the liquidator is Mr James Kirton, also a former manager of the National Bank of New Zealand; and to crown all, the interim secretary for the new Company, with the legal management in perspective, is Mr Black, also a late manager for the National Bank of New Zealand. Whether the Company floats or not it is difficult just now to say, but it is doubtful if it does float soon. Mr Black stands out in the cold, but the other two erstwhile managers of the N.B.N.Z. have “made their marbles good” in holding the liquidatorship, and the man in possession. We don’t suppose if the Colonies were searched through a similar case to the above could be found.

3-: From Greymouth Notes, published in The West Coast Times (Hokitika, New Zealand) of Thursday 5th December 1895:

Some folks here who were looking for a bye-election to the House, consequent on the sitting member’s elevation, are not so sure now. There is no doubt the Kumara Times states an objection which will be made much use of by the astute Richard John, viz, that the country would howl if two ministers came from the despised West Coast. It is not a question of right or wrong, fitness or unfitness. Those considerations do not keep R. J. wake o’nights. But it is a question of making his own particular marble good, which is a different matter.

4-: From the following poem, published in The Press (Christchurch, New Zealand) of Saturday 11th April 1896:


To be, or not to be—there’s the trouble.
Whether ’tis safer for some months to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous Russell
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by short sessions end them? To funk, to lie
No more; and by a loan to say we end
The humbug and the thousand awful shocks
That Stout has giv’n us—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To funk; to lie—
To lie! perchance to win. Aye, there’s the rub;
For with our lies we long have office kept.
Should we be shunted from our much-loved power,
What can we do? There are the sweets of office,
The power and patronage we love so well;
We still must bear the whips and scorns of Stout,
The Christchurch Press with its ten thousand tongues,
The pangs of turncoat members; th’accusing voice
Of violated laws and surplus built of loans.
When I myself might make my marble good
By taking refuge in the Upper House,
Who would these fardels bear? And sweat and grunt
When he could give his foes the slip
Into that sleepy Chamber from whose bourn
No traveller returns to act the badger.

5-: From In the Cabinet Room, by ‘our own Mahatma’, published in the North Otago Times (Oamaru, New Zealand) of Thursday 13th August 1896:

P——r: ‘I want to get it over and retire. What is there, I ask, to keep me? Have I not made my marble good? Made peers by the dozen? Seen the people and Parliament cringe to me? What more can [illegible] want? Why should I fight your battles or preserve you longer from the fate that dogs you? Answer me that?’

6-: From Mems from the Metropolis, a correspondence from Sydney, published in the Dubbo Dispatch and Wellington Independent (Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia) of Friday 25th June 1897:

Many of the metropolitan and suburban members have been “making their marbles good” with their constituents by getting gifts of blankets for the poor of their electorates from the Government. This is a sad Commentary upon our boasted progress and prosperity. Up to this, we have only given blankets to the aboriginals, and then we took care to see they were full blooded before the gift was made.

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