I’ve been thinking a lot about the context of history in recent weeks, mostly in terms of books, but other people and events are added into those thoughts. When news arrived of Doris Day’s death, I was saddened. When I was young, her movies were considered family-friendly. The El Lago showed every one. Ms. Day produced good-hearted TV shows. She went on to dedicated work with animals. She didn’t have a smooth life, showing how effective the Hollywood marketing departments were. I’m grateful for the joy her work brought to my life and for the example she provided as an extraordinary woman … in the context of history.
Some days (most days), I am in need of a movie that leaves me feeling like I can tackle anything and make it better. Steve and I watched a movie last night that left us cheering: The Kid Who Would Be King. A just-right film for kids, families, and adults who remain connected to childhood, it’s a superhero film without the modern cliches of cartoon characters or endless war or thoughtless carnage. Good battles evil with gratifying results. I am grateful for Joe Cornish, Patrick Stewart, and the young actors in this movie: well done!
I love putting on my Word Detective hat. I recently read a novel set in 1920s Minneapolis and Hollywood, The Looking Glass Goddess, by Amanda Hughes. The author was good about including authentic locations, food, styles, and phrases. One of those phrases, “Tell it to Sweeney,” I had never heard before. Was this a real thing? What did it mean? The hunt was on. First, I looked it up online.
According to Wikipedia, a silent movie was released in 1927. But there’s no notation about the plot.
The Free Dictionary says “A scornful or incredulous response to a story or statement that one does not believe or finds ridiculous.” Okay. That tells me the tone of the statement, but where did it come from? (Someone cared enough to make a video explanation!)
There’s a book by this name, subtitled Informal History of the New York Daily News, by John Arthur Chapman. [Flag raised: what constitutes an “informal” history?]
On a site named Tell It to Sweeney: the straight dope about the 20s, 30s, and 40s, I found the explanation that the original phrase was “Tell it to the Marines,” first used in 1804 in The Post Captain: Comprehending a View of Society and Manners “in which author John Davis proclaims, ‘You may tell that to the Marines but I’ll be damned if the sailors will believe it.’ The variation that uses the name “Sweeney” referenced the myriad of monikers used to describe the stereotypical Irishman.” Aha, so now there is a derogatory connotation to the phrase.
Time to head to my print reference collection. In Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, I find no reference to ‘tell it to Sweeney,” but “tell that to the Marines” has an entry. “Said of a farfetched yarn. The story is that Pepys, when re-telling stories gathered from The Navy to Charles II, mentioned flying fish. The courtiers were skeptical, but an officer of the Maritime Regiment of Foot said that he too had seen such. The king accepted this evidence and said, “From the very nature of their calling no class of our subjects can have so wide a knowledge of seas and lands as the officers and men of Our Loyal Maritime Regiment. Henceforward ere ever we cast doubts upon a tale that lacks likelihood we will first ‘tell it to the Marines.’” Brewer’s was first published in 1894 in England.
The website Tell It to Sweeney leads me to the website The Big Apple, which states,
“Tell it to Sweeney! (The Stuyvesants will understand.)” was an advertisement for the New York (NY) Daily News, first appearing in August 1922. The Daily News positioned itself as the newspaper of the average working man—such as the Irish “Sweeney.” The name “Stuyvesant” was used to represent blue bloods. If you advertise in the Daily News and reach the Sweeneys of New York City, the Stuyvesants will also get the message.
‘Tell it to Sweeney!” had been in slang use since 1910. “If you have any harness trouble tell it to SWEENEY, the leading harness maker,” appeared as an ad in 1909, but it’s not certain if this is connected to the slang use. The song “Tell it to Sweeney,” with words by Will Dillon and music by Harry Von Tilzer, appeared in The Yankee Girl that opened in the Herald Square Theatre on February 10, 1910, and ran for 92 performances. The slang use is probably related to this song, with “Sweeney” being a typical Irish name for a policeman.
This is satisfying. I can get lost for hours pursuing word and phrase origins. I am grateful to the people who record these origins for posterity.
I’m curious. Had you heard the phrase “Tell it to Sweeney” before?
My home town had a movie theater, the El Lago, which showed films starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, nature movies, and anything featuring Elvis Presley. We never missed a show. My friends and I would walk downtown to the theater, buy some popcorn, and revel in people and places outside our daily life. I first saw Blue Hawaii, starring Elvis, Joan Blackman, and Angela Lansbury, when I was eight years old. That last wedding scene is emblazoned in my mind. I immediately developed a fascination with Hawaii. I researched and wrote reports about it during my school years. I read everything I could find, both fiction and nonfiction. I watched every movie and TV show that featured Hawaiian scenery (“Book ’em, Danno.”) I haven’t made it to Hawaii yet. It’s on my bucket list. I’m grateful for the Christmas song, “Mele Kalikimaka,” sung by Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters. It transports me to sandy beaches in my Christmas imagination … someplace warm.
When I was 10, our school librarian put Mary Poppins in my hands. “I think you’ll enjoy this.” She had no idea. The book lit a fire inside me. I fell in love with this cranky nanny and the family she was determined to help. I read all of the books published up until that time and wanted more. I wrote a letter to P.L. Travers, asking if there would be more books. She answered me with a postcard. I cherish that card to this day.
On August 27th of that year, Walt Disney released the movie version. It wasn’t exactly like the book. This Mary Poppins was stern but you could tell she had a sense of humor. Her loving nature was more apparent than the book’s Mary Poppins. What’s more, there was singing and dancing. My mother took me to the movie and she bought me the LP. I look at the LP now and it’s quite worn. I remember every word to every song in that movie, most especially “Feed the Birds.” We didn’t have access to interviews from every angle about everyone in and behind the movie. It was all magical.
And now there will be a movie sequel. It’s about time. I am grateful that I still feel the magic so strongly that I’m excited to see the new movie! That’s just one of the powers that books have.