Posted by Scott Marsden on October 27, 2000
I was taking a browse through Brewer's "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" online, when I stumbled on this phrase -- "tell it to the marines!"
I had heard it used (and used it) as a response to someone with a minor gripe. I always thought it was sarcastic, along the lines of "tell it to the marines, maybe they'll help you out!" (dripping sarcasm)
Brewer's explanation says it means "Tell that to greenhorns, and not to men who know better. Marines are supposed by sailors to be so green that they will swallow the most extravagant story."
I think this difference in definition comes from a difference in opinion about marines between 19th century England and modern North America. Most modern North Americans regard Marines (U.S. Marines) as tough customers and elite soldiers. You can tell your gripe to the Marines, but they aren't going to listen your your piddling problems. But Brewer states that British Marines were looked down upon by regular seamen, so much so that "marines" was a nickname for empty bottles. "Tell it to the marines," they'd say, "and maybe those fools will listen to you!"
But then again, maybe I just have a severe misunderstanding of the phrase from the get-go.
See also: the meaning and origin of Tell it to the Marines!