Churchillian (or Yogi Berra) Drift

Churchillian (or Yogi Berra) Drift

Yogi Berra, 1950s

“If you don’t know the author of a choice quote, cred­it it to Churchill, Ein­stein, Lin­coln or Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.. Every­body will be impressed and they said so much that nobody will know the dif­fer­ence.”

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” is big right now on Twit­ter. Also: “Suc­cess is not final, fail­ure is not fatal: it is the courage to con­tin­ue that counts.”

Then there is: “If I were your hus­band, I’d drink it,” Churchill’s alleged retort to Lady Astor’s threat to poi­son his cof­fee, which was most like­ly uttered by his friend F.E. Smith, Lord Birken­head.

Pro­fes­sor Man­fred Wei­d­horn puts us onto the right term: “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, who wrote: “Long ago, I coined the term ‘Churchillian Drift’ to describe the process where­by the actu­al orig­i­na­tor of a quo­ta­tion is often 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 had 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 but Ein­stein (Not every­thing that counts can be count­ed); Gand­hi (Be the change you wish to see in the world) and Lin­coln (“A house divid­ed against itself can­not stand” was quot­ed by Lin­coln from the Bible.)

The thing is, Wei­d­horn observes, “you do not find your­self the tar­get of Churchillian Drift unless, like Churchill him­self, 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….”

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.

3 thoughts on “Churchillian (or Yogi Berra) Drift

  1. 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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