The Slogan

The slogan, "Tell it to Sweeney" (misspelled in the tag), meant the same as "tell it to the Marines." According to the New Dictionary of American Slang (Robert L. Chapman, PH.D., Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1986: 434), the phrase came from the early 1800s British Navy: "I do not believe what you have just told me; what you say is false and futile [the useage reflects the contempt in which marines were held by naval seamen, leading to the assertion that they would believe nonsense that sailors would never believe]". The dictionary also explains that "Sweeney is one of a group of surely mythical Irishmen, like Riley, Kelsey, and Kilroy, whose names are used apparently for some humorous effect."

From a later interpretation from American Sayings: Famous Phrases, Slogans and Aphorisms, by Henry F. Woods, Essential Books, Duell, Sloan and Pierce, New York, 1945, p. 273:

"Tell that to the Marines."

That rivalry, good-natured for the most part, that traditionally exists between sailors of the United States Navy and the Marines apparently is a heritage from the British navy. The usual doubting retort to a "tall story," .,Tell that to the Marines-the sailors won't believe it," originated in England, and on the authority of Burton Stevenson it will be found in Sir Walter Scott's Redgauntlet and in Lord Byron's poem, The Island.

While the phrase, contrary to general belief, is not American in origin, in its abbreviated form, as well as in its usual application, it has become pretty well naturalized. It is still used here to convey derisive doubt of an improbable statement or story, but without suggestion of invidious reference to the gullibility of Marines. On the contrary, the implication usually is that the reception that can be expected to be given to a yarn of the kind by hardfisted and realistic leathernecks would be violent and emphatic.

Early in the war between the United States and Japan the phrase was the sole comment made by President Roosevelt upon extravagant and unverified claims of victory made by the Japanese.

 

Rube Goldberg pins, with slogans.

 

And in praise of Rube Goldberg as a slogan/slang-maker:

"Toward the end of 1933, W.J. Funk of the Funk and Wagnalls Company, publishers of the Standard Dictionary and the Literary Digest, undertook to supply the newpapers with the names of the ten most fecund makers of American slang then current. He nominated T.A. (Tad) Dorgan, the cartoonist; Sime Silverman, editor of the theatrical weekly, Variety; Gene Buck, the song writer; Damon Runyon, the sports writer; Walter Winchell and Arthur (Bugs) Baer, newspaper columnists; George Ade, Ring Lardner and Gelett Burgess. He should have added Jack Conway and Johnny O'Connor of the staff of Variety; James Gleason, author of "Is Zat So?"; Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist..."

(H.L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the U.S., Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1936: 560.)

For further reference:

Advertising Slogans of America, Harold S. Sharp, 1984.

The Effective Echo; A Dictionary of Advertising Slogans, Valerie Noble, 1970.

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