Tell It to the Marines

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the phrase. For the film, see Tell It to the Marines (film). For the TV series, see Tell It to the Marines (TV series).

"Tell it to the Marines" is a catchphrase, originally with reference to Britain's Royal Marines, connoting that the person addressed is not to be believed ("tell it to the marines because the sailors won't believe you").


The earliest publication attesting the phrase is John Davis's The Post Captain; or, the Wooden Walls Well Manned; Comprehending a View of Naval Society and Manners (1804):[1] "You may tell that to the marines, but I'll be d----d if the sailors will believe it."[2] The expression is repeated four times in the novel; Davis was a veteran of the navy. Anthony Trollope used the phrase in his 1864 novel The Small House at Allington in the chapter titled "Domestic Troubles".[3][4] Sir Walter Scott used the phrase "Tell it to the Marines – the sailors won't believe it" in his 1824 novel Redgauntlet.[5]

James Montgomery Flagg's 1917 recruiting poster

William Price Drury, a novelist and retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, fabricated an earlier origin for the phrase, which was formerly widely believed.[5] Drury attributed the phrase to King Charles II of Great Britain (reigned 1660–1685), reporting that Charles made the remark to Samuel Pepys. Drury related this origin story in a preface of a 1904 collection of his stories, The Tadpole of the Archangel; however, Drury later admitted it was a fabrication.[6]

The original meaning of the phrase is pejorative to the Marines, implying that they are gullible.[2] (Drury's fake origin story, in which Charles II mocked the Marines' credulity for their belief in flying fishes,[1] attempts to recast the origin of the phrase as actually depicting the Marines as astute and experienced world travelers.)[2] In the United States, a second use arose following James Montgomery Flagg's 1917 propaganda poster showing a variation of the phrase and an enraged recruit: if there's a wrong to be avenged, tell the Marines, because they will do something about it.

In popular culture[edit]

The phrase has appeared in many American books, films, and other media. The 1926 film Tell It to the Marines is typical of American media in using the phrase in the context of the Marines as tough fighters rather than as gullible naifs.

The phrase appeared in the 1942 serial G-Men vs the Black Dragon (it is a captured American agent's response to a sneering Japanese villain's account of Axis victories), and was the title of a 1952 series of war comics from Toby Press[7] and a 1960 album of Marine songs by Oscar Brand.[8]

In a 1972 episode of Doctor Who (Day of the Daleks), the phrase was used in order to show that the Doctor was in trouble. "Tell it to the Marines" was the title of a 1975 episode of the American TV program Happy Days.[9] The phrase is also the title of a British sitcom, Tell It to the Marines, which aired on ITV from 1959 to 1960.

In the 2000 Woody Allen comedy Small Time Crooks, the phrase is used in the original sense when Ray (Allen) suprises his wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) with Belgian chocolates: Tell it to the marines! You're up to something. Did you get caught hitting on a waitress?.

Sheet music cover of 1918 Al Jolson song mimics Flagg's poster. 
American World War II propaganda poster shows the Marines as avengers. 
World War II propaganda poster of the "loose lips sink ships" variety implies trustworthiness. 


  1. ^ a b The Phrase Finder. "Tell it to the marines". Gary Martin. Retrieved 28 November 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c "Where does the phrase 'tell it to the Marines' come from?". Royal Museums Greenwich. Retrieved December 13, 2013. 
  3. ^ Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington, Everyman's Library (1997) at page 502.
  4. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary. "Marine". Douglas Harper. Retrieved 28 November 2012. 
  5. ^ a b R. K. Puma. "On James Montgomery Flagg". Retrieved December 13, 2013. 
  6. ^ Boller, Jr., Paul F.; George, John (1990). They Never Said It : a Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (1. issued as paperback. ed.). New York, NY [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press. p. 103. ISBN 0195064690. 
  7. ^ "Tell It to the Marines (1952 Toby Press) comic books". Lone Star Comics. Retrieved December 13, 2013. 
  8. ^ Jack Horntip. "Tell It to the Marines (1960)". Horntip. Retrieved December 13, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Happy Days Episode: "'Tell It to the Marines'". TV Guide. Retrieved December 13, 2013. 

External links[edit]