Churchillian (or Yogi Berra) Drift: How Quotations are Invented

Churchillian (or Yogi Berra) Drift: How Quotations are Invented

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.

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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.

drift
“I nev­er said many of the things I said,” said Yogi Berra. Or did he?

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.)

4 thoughts on “Churchillian (or Yogi Berra) Drift: How Quotations are Invented

  1. Most of the Yogi Berra quotes were nev­er made by him but by his child­hood friend Joe Gara­gi­o­la who made them up for laughs on the din­ner cir­cuit.

  2. Many apho­risms used by Ronald Rea­gan were quotes from anoth­er source but because of his noto­ri­ety Rea­gan is the quot­ed source. Iron­i­cal­ly Rea­gan him­self said, “There is no lim­it to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the cred­it.” Is there Ronald Rea­gan Drift?

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