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I was interested in the phrase “If you believe that, I’ve got an Eiffel Tower I want to sell you,” which appeared in Maureen Dowd’s column, titled “The Libertine on the Loose” in New York Times (May 1st).

The article seems to be mocking the former IMF President, Strauss-Kahn for his appearance in the birthday party of Julien Dray, France Socialist Party deputy together with a troop of celebrities. The article wraps up with the following lines:

“According to Le Figaro, a stripper-hooker named Jade testified that “I did not go and sleep with Dominique Strauss-Kahn simply for pleasure. First of all, he is old. He is stout.”

The 63-year-old insisted that the “pretty new things” were motivated merely by lust for him. And, if you believe that, I’ve got an Eiffel Tower I want to sell you."

In Japan, we have popular sayings such as “If your story is true, I’ll show my somersault dive from the top of the Mt. Fuji before your eyes,” and “(Your story is laughable to) 'make a water in the kettle boil on my belly button'” when we don’t believe what the other party is saying to you.

Is Dowd’s “(If) I’ve got something (like Eiffel Tower or the Empire State), I want to sell you,” a popular or set phrase like our “somersault dive from the top of Mt. Fuji” and “make a kettle of water boil on my naval.”?

Associated question on her remark: What does "lust" of "motivated merely by lust for him" mean?

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On your additional point: lust is the general term for the sexual emotion/deadly sin (according to philosophy). DSK was not claiming the girls were all nymphomaniacs, but that they found him in particular irresistible. –  TimLymington May 2 '12 at 22:14
Oishi-san: I've heard お臍が宿替えする but not the one about water boiling. Would you mind rendering that in 日本語 please? –  Robusto May 3 '12 at 3:19
Robusto-san. I’m glad to know you give a look at my posts from time to time. I think I hear more often “臍が油を沸かす/臍が茶釜を沸かす” meaning “Your (absurd) story makes the water in the kettle (or teapot) boil on my navel” than “臍が宿替えする” meaning “Your (laughable) story forces my navel to make house-moving (because of commotion of belly). As you know, while “I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you” is targeted at the gullible person, the object of ‘臍が油を沸かす/臍が宿替えする’ is the absurdness of the story itself. –  Yoichi Oishi May 3 '12 at 4:39
(Continued) There’s another Japanese version for mocking a person who tells a tall or absurd story: 三回回って、ワンと鳴いてみせる- If your story is true, I’ll creep around you three times (like a dog) and bark ‘bowwow’ for you. –  Yoichi Oishi May 3 '12 at 5:05
Yoichi: I'm not surpised Robusto looks at your posts from time to time. I learn more from your questions than I do from most people's answers. If I could give one piece of advice to any EL&U newcomer, it would be "read five of Yoichi Oishi's questions before you write one of your own." Maybe that belongs in the FAQ. Maybe I should have posted this in meta. Anyway, thanks for yet another well-presented question. –  J.R. May 3 '12 at 9:13

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This is a way of saying, "if you believe that, you are gullible enough to believe most anything" (and the speaker should therefore capitalize by making themselves lots of money off of you). Basically, you are so gullible that you are vulnerable out in public. The idea here is that somebody could trick (scam) you by selling something they don't own. Generally something that only a very gullible person would fall for.

Typically (in the USA at least) its either "a bridge", or "The Brooklyn Bridge". However, any large landmark the speaker obviously doesn't own would do as a stand-in.

The landmark in question is often modified to match the situation a bit, just to be cute. In this case, the person in question is French, so the one French landmark a typcial New York Times reader would know about (the Eiffel Tower) was used.

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I understood that trope, “If you believe that, I've got a bridge I want to sell you” is different from our clichés, “I’ll show my dive from the top of the Mt. Fuji” and “make a kettle of water boil on the naval” are different by its nature. While “the bridge” refers to gullibility of the counterpart, our “somersault dive” and “boils water” refer to nonsense / being unlialistic of the story someone tells us. It’s learning for me. Otherwise I would have muddled them together, and used mistakenly. –  Yoichi Oishi May 2 '12 at 23:56
@YoichiOishi - I think you're trying to be too precise, and with too narrow a focus. "I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you" did indeed start out as an assertion that the person is gullible. However, Dowd's quote was not about any particular person being tricked. As such, it can be read (and I'd read it) as an assertion that Strauss-Kahn's statement is such obvious nonsense that no reasonable person would buy it (and I use this last phrase with malice aforethought). In this case I think it corresponds fairly closely to your reading of the Japanese sayings. –  WhatRoughBeast Feb 13 at 17:50
A little history is in order. George C. Parker en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_C._Parker was a notorious con man who, in the late 19th and early 20th century, repeatedly sold the Brooklyn Bridge to new immigrants. When they tried to set up toll booths they learned of their mistake. In American idiom, offering to sell the Brooklyn Bridge became, in effect, an accusation of naivete. Dowd is transplanting the phrase to European usage, but can't think of a Swiss landmark that Americans would recognize, so she settles for the Eiffel Tower. –  WhatRoughBeast Jun 15 at 22:28

The construction means "If you believe that, then... here's something else to show how gullible you are," but without being quite so blunt about it.

The Eiffel Tower was famously "sold" by "Count" Victor Lustig, a confidence trickster. Wikipedia has a comprehensive account and it's linked in the article to the Frenchman Strauss-Kahn.

Any large monument might be substituted. In the UK it might be London Bridge, because of the commonly-held belief that the American who bought it thought he was buying Tower Bridge.

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+1 to this answer, because it's the only one to mention that the Eiffel Tower actually was sold. It's not just a random Parisian landmark used for the sake of the joke. –  TRiG Aug 20 '12 at 12:24

As usual, it is Dowd being mildly clever. The usual trope in (American) English, is

if you believe that, I've got a bridge I want to sell you

(or minor variations) based on the story (probably a myth) that a common swindle in New York City in the early 1900's was to find someone gullible (who will believe anything you say) and offer to sell them a bridge, usually the Brooklyn Bridge (a marvel of engineering at the time it was built), that is, you'd have to be very gullible to think you could buy a bridge especially one so large and famous as the Brooklyn Bridge.

Dowd is just putting the spin on things by, instead of the Brooklyn Bridge, using a French landmark, the Eiffel Tower, because the subject is about French politics.

Old trope (buying a big bridge) + change in location (France) = very mild joke.

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As mentioned by others, "I’ve got an Eiffel Tower, I want to sell you" is a modification of "I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you" or some such phrase which indicates that someone is gullible.

Changing the item in a phrase is sometimes called a snowclone:

A snowclone is a neologism for a type of cliché and phrasal template originally defined as "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants".

An example of a snowclone is "grey is the new black", a version of the template "X is the new Y". X and Y may be replaced with different words or phrases – for example, "comedy is the new rock 'n' roll".[2] The term "snowclone" can be applied to both the original phrase and to any new phrase that uses its formula. Many Internet memes are snowclones: for example, the meme "obvious troll is obvious" has been generalized to many other statements of the form "X Y is X".

If you suspect something's a snow clone, you can find out by doing a google search with the phrase in quotes, but substituting the suspected modification with an asterisk, such as:

"I’ve got an * I want to sell you"
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