Above: Drift into Trinidad, March 1961. Churchill, 87, at the Governor’s residence, Port of Spain, during a cruise aboard the Onassis yacht Christina. A similar (unsigned) photo was sold at auction in 2010. Lower right: Dr. Eric Williams, who in August 1962 became the first prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago. I would welcome identities for the others in the photo.
Churchillian Drift is just the ticket. I have been looking for a term to describe the numerous potted, inaccurate Churchill quotes. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth puts its trousers on.” That is big right now on Twitter. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Everybody uses that one repeatedly.
Then there is: “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.” That is Churchill’s alleged retort to Lady Astor’s threat to poison his coffee. Most likely, it was uttered by his friend F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead.
Professor Manfred Weidhorn puts us onto Churchillian Drift. This is explained by James Geary, a “gnomologist” (quote mavens get to wear this impressive title) who shares Dr. Weidhorn’s vice of collecting aphorisms:
Churchillian Drift was devised by British gnomologist Nigel Rees: “I coined the term to describe the process whereby the originator of a quotation is elbowed to one side and replaced by someone more famous. So to Churchill or Napoleon would be ascribed what, actually, a lesser-known political figure said. The process occurs in all fields.
Churchillian Drift bobs up among some of the biggest names in the aphorism business. Not just Churchill and Napoleon. Albert Einstein is popular. (Not everything that counts can be counted.) So is Mahatma Gandhi (Be the change you wish to see in the world.) And of course Honest Abe gets his share. (“A house divided against itself cannot stand” was quoted by Lincoln from the Bible.)
But remember this, Dr. Weidhorn continues. “You do not find yourself the target of Churchillian Drift unless, like Churchill, you are already a fine aphorist. Part of the reason it’s so easy to misattribute brilliant sayings to great aphorists is that they have already coined so many brilliant sayings themselves.
“Which is also why they might feel occasionally justified in purloining an orphan phrase to make it their own. After all, Franklin may or may not have originated the aphorism, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’ But he never said anything against being a plagiarist….”
Yogi Berra Drift
Professor Weidhorn adds:
Churchill himself used some of his well known sayings earlier in his career but no one noticed, so my addendum to this theory is that not just the stature of the person matters but the occasion—1940-42, Churchill’s finest hour, being high drama on the world stage.
There’s really nothing Churchillian about it. You could just as well call it the Yogi Berra drift. “I never said many of the things I said,” Yogi said—ALLEGEDLY.
It’s closely related to the phenomenon of a charismatic figure—Alexander the Great, King Arthur, Jesus—becoming like a black hole that draws in miscellaneous stories that were just lying around and then are connected to the famous figure.
(Post updated August 2018 after Texas Governor Greg Abbott tweeted, “The fascists of the future will call themselves anti-fascists.” Kudos to the Guv’nor for pulling that one.)