Many expressions we use as adults originated in the playgrounds, classrooms, and empty lots of our childhood. "Say uncle," "connect the dots," "stay within the lines," and "stuck-up" are just a few. The term hoodwink is left over from another children's game, blindman's buff (not "bluff"). In this traditional English game, the it person was blindfolded, slapped on the behind, or "buffed," then made to stumble about trying to grab other players. Blindfolded participants were said to be hoodwinked. Originally, that term referred to having one's eyes covered. Over time hoodwink came to mean "trick someone."
Many such expressions are rooted in the type of hand-on game that has given way to PlayStation and Xbox. One of the oldest involved small round spheres made of clay, glass, ceramic, or stone. These, of course, are marbles. Marbles could be used in an infinite variety of games, but — in America, anyway — the most popular involved trying to knock each other's marbles out of a circle drawn in the dirt. Those playing this game, usually called Ringer, had to knuckle down, or squat on one knee with a knuckle on the ground, then propel a shooter into the ring from his hand. As adults, we say we're ready to knuckle down, or get serious, as we once did when marbles were on the line. To knuckle under, on the other hand, is to succumb, much like the marble player yielding to an opponent's demand that he shoot with knuckles inverted. Players in some games played for keeps, or "keepsies." Winners of those games kept every marble they could knock out of the ring. Another way of saying the same thing was going for all the marbles. In Ringer as in life this meant aspiring to all or nothing. Losing your marbles was infuriating of course, and is probably why we apply that phrase to out-of-control adults who have lost it.
Excerpted from I Love It When You Talk Retro by Ralph Keyes. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.