Tell it to the Marines

"Tell it to the Marines" is an English-language idiom, originally with reference to Britain's Royal Marines, connoting that the person addressed is not to be believed. The full phrase is "tell it to the marines because the sailors won't believe you", but only the first clause is usually given, standing for the whole.


The earliest published use of the phrase is in 1804 in John Davis's novel The Post Captain; or, the Wooden Walls Well Manned; Comprehending a View of Naval Society and Manners:[1] "You may tell that to the marines ... may I be d----d if the sailors will believe it",[2] and several similar shorter phrases in speeches by characters.[3] Davis was a veteran of the navy. This original meaning of the phrase is pejorative to the Marines, implying that they are gullible.[2]

In 1824 Sir Walter Scott used the phrase "Tell it to the Marines – the sailors won't believe it" in his novel Redgauntlet.[4]

In 1864 Anthony Trollope used the phrase in his novel The Small House at Allington in the chapter titled Domestic Troubles:[5][6] an angry speech by the character Mr.Lupex about his wife's doings ended with "... Is that a story to tell to such a man as me! You may tell it to the marines!".[7]

In 1864 William T. Sherman used the phrase, "Talk thus to the marines, but not to me." in his 10 September 1864 letter to General Hood, CSA, commanding the Army of Tennessee, in response to Gen Hood's complaints regarding Sherman's behavior to the people of Atlanta after Sherman had captured the city and ordered all residents of the city to evacuate.

In 1904 William Price Drury, a novelist and retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, wrote in a preface of a 1904 collection of his stories The Tadpole of the Archangel that King Charles II of Great Britain (reigned 1660–1685) said the phrase to Samuel Pepys; in Drury's story, the Marines knew from their travels that flying fish exist, but Charles II did not believe them.[1] This version presents the Marines as astute and experienced world travelers rather than credulous dopes.[2] This origin story was formerly widely believed,[4] but Drury later admitted that it was a fabrication.[8]

In the 1942 comedy Once Upon a Honeymoon, Cary Grant's character is forced to read a pro-Nazi propaganda radio broadcast. He "warns" of the invincibility of the German war machine and instructs the Americans to be sure to tell the Army and the Navy and, above all, "Tell it to the Marines!!" Naturally, the Nazis don't get the reference.

The phrase was used 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)

The phrase is the title of a British sitcom, Tell It to the Marines, which aired on ITV from 1959 to 1960. In a 1972 episode of Doctor Who (Day of the Daleks), the phrase was used as a duress code by the Doctor when speaking to the Brigadier (who would be familiar with it). In the Tom Baker era (1975-1980), the phrase would be used again in the same way from time to time, letting the Brigadier know the Doctor needed rescuing. "Tell it to the Marines" was the title of a 1975 episode of the American TV program Happy Days.[9] In the 2000 Woody Allen comedy Small Time Crooks, the phrase is used when Ray (Allen) surprises 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?" In the Will & Grace episode "My Uncle the Car", character Karen Walker tells Beverley Leslie "tell it to the Marines, if ya already haven’t!" after he proclaims he would have made his shot while playing pool had she not intervened.

Alternative meaning

In America, the phrase, while still retaining its original use and meaning, also acquired a second meaning: if there's a wrong to be avenged, tell the Marines, because they will do something about it.

In 1917 in the United States, a recruitment poster shows a variation of the phrase and an enraged civilian who wants to enlist. This sense of the phrase has appeared in many American books, films, and other media. The 1926 film Tell It to the Marines shows the American media using the phrase in the context of the Marines as tough fighters rather than as gullible naifs.

The phrase was the title of a 1952 series of war comics from Toby Press[10] and a 1960 album of Marine songs by Oscar Brand.[11]


  1. The Phrase Finder. "Tell it to the marines". Gary Martin. Retrieved 28 November 2012.
  2. "Where does the phrase 'tell it to the Marines' come from?". Royal Museums Greenwich. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  3. Search through the book for the word "Marines"
  4. R. K. Puma. "On James Montgomery Flagg". Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  5. Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington, Everyman's Library (1997) at page 502.
  6. Online Etymology Dictionary. "Marine". Douglas Harper. Retrieved 28 November 2012.
  8. 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.
  9. "Happy Days Episode: "'Tell It to the Marines'". TV Guide. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  10. "Tell It to the Marines (1952 Toby Press) comic books". Lone Star Comics. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
  11. Jack Horntip. "Tell It to the Marines (1960)". Horntip. Retrieved December 13, 2013.
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