If we take a look at the idiom "in mothballs" the meaning is "stored and not in use, often for a long time" and the meaning of "to mothball" is "to decide not to use or develop something, for a period of time". My mother language is not English, but it seems that these expressions can have the same meaning or be very similar.

  1. Brian mothballed his new computer in order to buy a new one.

  2. Brian put his new computer in mothballs in order to buy a new one.

Would those sentences have the same meaning?

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    @Fumble: It's used to indicate something will be shelved or decommissioned for awhile, perhaps indefinitely. It appears to be more common in AmE than BrE, but it is used in AmE. (Clicking on the links under the Ngram lines show the expression being used for battleships, the space program, factories, political campaigns, etc. A great number of uses seem to be related to the Navy, though, so I wonder if the slang originated there.)
    – J.R.
    Apr 16, 2013 at 20:48
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    I'm not sure the new computer example is a good usage of mothballs, regardless of the syntax used. When you put away clothes with mothballs (the origin of this metaphor), the intent is to use the clothing again in the future, whether next winter (as with a wool coat) or 20 years from now for your daughter's wedding (as with a wedding dress). If you're replacing your computer, you don't put the old one away for later use: you either give it away now, while it could still be useful to somebody, or you throw it out, because by next winter, technology will have moved on.
    – Martha
    Apr 16, 2013 at 21:20
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    @Fumble: The question was whether the meanings were the same, not which was more common than the other. I agree with you that it's worth pointing out one is much less common than the other, as you did, but I don't think I'm "promoting" the usage of anything by answering the O.P.'s question, or by acknowledging that both forms exist.
    – J.R.
    Apr 17, 2013 at 8:12
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    @Fumble: (Re: "will be put in mothballs") Take out "will be" from your search and the number exceeds 10,000 – including one entry from a dictionary. That's a lot to shrug off.
    – J.R.
    Apr 17, 2013 at 20:03
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    @Fumble: Perhaps so, but, again, the question was about meaning, not about usage. Just because something is in declining usage doesn't make it irrelevant for a learner's site; what if someone is reading a book from 1950? Learners come here to understand what they've read as much as they come here to learn how to put idea into English conversation. BTW, you get another 5000 hits when you change the in to into.
    – J.R.
    Apr 18, 2013 at 9:50

1 Answer 1


I think the two expressions are largely interchangeable, but I'm not sure your example sentences are the best use of these phrases.

As you said, to mothball (or, to put into mothballs) is a figurative expression meaning to put something away for a long time, as in storage. I believe, though, that to mothball means more than simply stow something away; it usually implies you get something ready for long storage, so that it might be usable again in a time of need.

Also, we wouldn't mothball something in order to buy a new one, but we might mothball something as a result of buying a new one. (In other words, because we've bought something new, we can put the old one into mothballs; that way, if our new one fails for some reason, we still might be able to bring the old one back into use.)

So, addressing both of these issues, I'd propose these two sentences for example usages:

Brian mothballed his old lawnmower after he bought a new riding mower.

Brian put his old lawnmower in mothballs after he bought a new one.

By putting the lawnmower into mothballs (figuratively, of course), I would assume that he did a little bit more than stow the old mower in the toolshed. For example, he probably made sure that all the gas had been run out of the fuel system. He might have cleaned under the deck very thoroughly, to prevent trapped moisture from rusting the deck. He might have even put some extra lubricant in the cylinder, so that the piston wouldn't get stuck after long months of disuse.

As I mentioned in my comment, I was able to find the expression used in a myriad of contexts, but it seems like a more commonly used term in the navy, as a significant number of the references I found seemed to be linked to ships or shipyards.

I did like this quote, though:

Life is too interesting to be put in mothballs.

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    I can confirm the use of "mothball" as a naval term, in particular, the "mothball fleet". My father was active at the U.S. Bureau of Ships during WWII, largely responsible for scheduling the building of the "Liberty Ships", the mass-produced cargo ships that ferried personnel and materiel across the Atlantic. Nearly all of this fleet was "put in mothballs" after the war; some of these ships can still be seen in a few locations along the east coast, although they will never sail again. Apr 16, 2013 at 22:02
  • For Pictures see National Defense Reserve Fleet and this WikiPedia Entry
    – eyoung100
    Jul 1, 2014 at 15:38

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