“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.