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
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…”
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.