Churchill Misquotes: The Red Herrings Now Number 175

Churchill Misquotes: The Red Herrings Now Number 175

Quotes and Misquotes

Churchill by Him­self, my ency­clo­pe­dia of Win­ston Churchill’s most quotable remarks, is to be repub­lished. (If the pub­lish­ers can ever agree about what form and sub­stance they will allow each oth­er to pro­duce.) To the the orig­i­nal 4000 quotes I’ve added so far 600 new ones.

The “Red Her­rings” appen­dix of mis­quotes has also grown apace. That, how­ev­er, is always kept up to date online. You can look it up:

All the “Quotes” Churchill Nev­er Said

Mis­quotes Part 1: Accept­ing Change to Euro­pean Union

Part 2: Fanat­ic to Liberty

Mis­quotes Part 3: Lies to Sex

Part 4: Sex­ism to Ypres

A trove of misquotes

The orig­i­nal “Red Her­rings” appen­dix (2008) con­tained about 80 mis­quotes. Since then, with new dis­cov­er­ies it has more than dou­bled to 175. This is not sur­pris­ing, since Churchill con­tin­ues to engage the pub­lic inter­est. A brows­er search for “Win­ston Churchill” yields 87 mil­lion hits. (Abe Lin­coln still com­fort­ably leads with 144 mil­lion.) Since 2008, 270 new books about Churchill have been pub­lished, nev­er under 14 per year. The recent record is 34 in 2015. So we should not be sur­prised that mis­quotes have grown apace.

Ver­i­fi­ca­tion meth­ods have nev­er var­ied, although the research tool is improved. This is a dig­i­tal file con­stant­ly expand­ed by new pub­li­ca­tions by and about Churchill. Yes, there are still “new books by Churchill”—if you con­sid­er his pri­vate let­ters and writ­ings. These com­prise The Churchill Doc­u­ments, pub­lished through 2019 by Hills­dale Col­lege Press. The last half-dozen of these giant ref­er­ences add anoth­er five mil­lion words to the 20 mil­lion-word Churchill canon. Add anoth­er 80 mil­lion words about him by his­to­ri­ans, biog­ra­phers, con­tem­po­rary diarists and mem­oirists. Of course, this is not every word he ever uttered. But if we can’t find a quote there, or in a valid source else­where, we file it as “unat­trib­uted.”

Ear-witness: “Every time you see something big….”

New research some­times caus­es us to change a quotation’s sta­tus. Long regard­ed among mis­quotes, is this famous exchange of uri­nal humor: Clement Attlee, in a House of Com­mons wash­room, as Churchill shuf­fles away from him: “A bit stand-off­ish today, are we, Win­ston?” Churchill replies: “Every time you social­ists see some­thing big, you want to nation­al­ize it.”

This was long regard­ed as sheer fic­tion. But we final­ly noticed that a for­mer Churchill pri­vate sec­re­tary, David Pit­bla­do, claimed to have been an ear-wit­ness. Pitblado’s account, to William Man­ches­ter, is in The Last Lion, vol. 1, page 35. Man­ches­ter often­times played fast and loose with facts, but Pit­bla­do was not known for embroi­der­ing them. So we moved this exchange to the ranks of the genuine.

Among the misquotes: “Bring a friend, if you have one…”

Shaw’s emphat­ic dis­missal in his own hand of the “bring a friend” exchange. Shaw copied Churchill, who agreed that the sto­ry was pure fic­tion. (By kind per­mis­sion of Allen Pack­wood, Churchill Archives Cen­tre, CHUR 2/165)

Alas, a world-famous exchange between Churchill and Bernard Shaw has now joined the ranks of misquotes.

Shaw sup­pos­ed­ly writes WSC: “Am reserv­ing two tick­ets for you for my pre­miere. Come and bring a friend—if you have one.” Churchill sup­pos­ed­ly replies: “Impos­si­ble to be present for the first per­for­mance. Will attend the second—if there is one.”

Alas for quot­ers, Allen Pack­wood, direc­tor of the Churchill Archives Cen­tre in Cam­bridge, blew the sto­ry apart. In the Churchill Papers he found a set of let­ters (CHUR 2/165/66,68) in which both Shaw and Churchill denied the exchange. The play in ques­tion was “Buoy­ant Bil­lions” (1948).

Fresh fodder for misquotes…

…con­stant­ly appears in new Churchill quote books. Most entries lack attri­bu­tion, even a date—which makes them imme­di­ate­ly sus­pect. A recent exam­ple is The Smart Words and Wicked Wit of Win­ston Churchill (2017). Hilar­i­ous­ly, even the title is not orig­i­nal: The Wicked Wit of Win­ston Churchill (2001) was anoth­er high­ly inac­cu­rate compilation.

Review­ing the for­mer, William John Shep­herd found 28 entires, 11% of the book, unre­lat­ed to any­thing Churchill said by all the resources we could muster. A dozen were cred­it­ed to oth­er per­sons, like: “There are a ter­ri­ble lot of lies going about the world, and the worst is that half of them are true.” (Churchill said this, cred­it­ing a “wit­ty Irish­man.”)

Smart Words fur­nished anoth­er 20 brand new mis­quotes for our “Red Her­rings” depart­ment. They range from the banal (“You don’t make the poor rich­er by mak­ing the rich poor­er”) to the vul­gar (“At Har­row they taught us not to piss on our hands”)  to Yogi Berra-style (“It is nev­er nec­es­sary to com­mit sui­cide, espe­cial­ly if you live to regret it”).  They con­tain a num­ber we wish Churchill had said, but can­not ver­i­fy: “If I could not be who I am, I would most like to be Mrs. Churchill’s sec­ond husband.”And: “A man does what he must—in spite of per­son­al con­se­quences, in spite of obsta­cles and dan­gers and pressures—and that is the basis of all human morality.”

All of these add to the grow­ing store of Churchill non-quo­ta­tions. The mis­quotes industry—what Nigel Rees called “Churchillian Drift“—is going strong.

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