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  • “That goes for Sweeny”Jamie Tyrone’s Slang Phrase from Act 4 of Long Day’s Journey Into Night
  • George Monteiro (bio)

It is the perseverating Jamie who employs the expression “That goes for Sweeny” (as O’Neill spells the name) when he wants to dismiss a remark he has just directed at Edmund in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This expression appears to have originated in the horse-racing and betting world, though its usage later expanded. Such is the claim—“A New Slang Phrase and How It Originated”—put forth in the New York Morning Telegraph, a newspaper published for horse-racing followers, on February 12, 1901:

“That Goes for Sweeney”

The slang of the racetrack is as distinctive as that of the gambling house, the stage, or the city slum, and much of it is unintelligible to the average man about town who thinks he has heard everything and knows everything.

A frequent expression of disgust among racing men is “That goes for Sweeney.” Translated it signifies, “I pass it up.” “I don’t want any part of it.” Ordinarily it is employed with reference to a bad proposition that does not appeal convincingly to the keen business judgment of the speaker.

Sweeney is a quaint little Irishman who does the calling on the Western tracks. Whenever anything particularly shady or dubious in the way of inside information crops up it is unloaded upon Sweeney. The knowing ones reject it with the satirical comment, “That goes for Sweeney.” They don’t care for it. [End Page 233]

But, although he never “gets it right,” unless by mere accident, poor Sweeney is a blithe and light hearted person, with a vein of quaint philosophy and original humor that makes him much liked by the racing people. Some of his own contributions to the slang of the period are weird and wonderful word creations.

He takes a cheerful and optimistic view of the future, and is serene in the belief that one of these days some good thing that “goes for Sweeney” will put him on velvet for the rest of his life.1

Use of the expression quickly spread to other part of the sports world, to baseball and boxing, for example.2 An amusing early instance involves boxing and the courts. When Magistrate Herrman held the redoubtable heavyweight champion Jack Johnson “for consideration by the grand jury in $1,000 on the charge of whipping a consumptive negro named Norman Pinder,” he did so after dismissing Johnson’s counsel’s explanation. The case was “framework,” argued Johnson’s lawyer; Pinder “received his injuries by falling downstairs in ‘Baron’ Wilkins’s negro resort in West Thirty-fifth Street on the night of the assault.” “Tell it to Sweeney,” countered the judge.3

By the end of the decade we find the phrase “that talk goes for Sweeney” employed as the writer states his credentials in “Confessions of a Dope Fiend”:

Our greatest moving picture star is a “snow bird”; her name I do not care to mention, and one of our greatest song writers of the day is up against the pipe, and you can take my word for it as a gilt edged bond, for seeing is believing.

In the underworld you hear of this stuff: “How do you know” and “who told you,” but that talk goes for Sweeney. I know who and what’s what because I handed over the dope myself for I was a messenger boy in the employ of the Postal Telegraph company for five years and I was stationed in New York’s famous tenderloin for that period.4

A more widespread use of the expression is suggested by an article in the New York Times in 1920 complaining that visiting Europeans were taking advantage of Americans, in which O’Neill’s friend Benjamin De Casseres reminded his readers that “when some one got off a cock-and-bull story in our presence we used to say ‘Tell it to Sweeney,’ or ‘Tell it to the marines.’”5

So widely disseminated was the phrase even by 1910, however, that it cropped up as the title of...


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