Churchill’s Word Play: “Notability or Notoriety”

Churchill’s Word Play: “Notability or Notoriety”

Q: Seeking fame by notability or notoriety

One remark I love to quote but can­not locate is Churchill’s self avowed quest for fame by “nota­bil­i­ty or noto­ri­ety.” Great word play. The best I can remem­ber is see­ing it in one of the ear­ly com­pan­ion vol­umes of the offi­cial biog­ra­phy, edit­ed by his son Ran­dolph. Where may I find it?  —M.L., New Jersey

A: No attribution

By plac­ing “nota­bil­i­ty” first, Churchill clear­ly thought it was bet­ter to be notable than noto­ri­ous. Alas, a search of Hills­dale College’s mas­sive dig­i­tal scans of 80 mil­lion words by and about him comes up empty.

The only instance of “nota­bil­i­ty and noto­ri­ety” togeth­er is in Man­fred Wei­d­horn‘s “Pat­terns in Churchill’s Charmed Life” (Finest Hour 99, Sum­mer 1998):

The law of aver­ages dic­tates that some of these dream­ers suc­ceed. Churchill was one of them. Hence he is the hero of our hypo­thet­i­cal non-real­is­tic nov­el. As a young man, Churchill put the world on notice with his mem­o­rably declared resolve to be an achiev­er by either nota­bil­i­ty or notoriety.

Hits and misses

There are 1000 occur­rences of “nota­bil­i­ty” (includ­ing “notable,” etc.) in the Churchill canon, but only 121 for “noto­ri­ety.” Being lazy, I looked up the 121.  Alas no ref­er­ence includes “nota­bil­i­ty” in the phrase except Pro­fes­sor Weidhorn’s article.

Now Man­ny Wei­d­horn is rarely wrong, and was evi­dent­ly quot­ing WSC from some­where. But where? The only Churchill quote that’s even close was in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy My Ear­ly Life, 1930 edi­tion, 231. He is writ­ing about his epic escape from the Pre­to­ria prison camp in the Boer War:

I was not to lan­guish as a pris­on­er. I was to escape, and by escap­ing was to gain a pub­lic rep­u­ta­tion or noto­ri­ety which made me well-known hence­for­ward among my coun­try­men, and made me accept­able as a can­di­date in a great many constituencies.

When it came to paint­ing, at least, Churchill thought noto­ri­ety had to be earned by hard work. From “The Acad­e­my Reveals Britain’s Brave Gai­ety” (Dai­ly Mail, 7 May 1932), reprint­ed in the Col­lect­ed Essays of Sir Win­ston Churchill (1975), vol.  IV, 105:

Excur­sions into bizarre impres­sion­ism may be accept­ed from those who have proved their cre­den­tials. But slap-dash and short cuts to fame or noto­ri­ety are evi­dent­ly, and right­ly, discouraged.

See also:

Man­fred Wei­d­horn, “On Rep­u­ta­tion: ‘If Churchill Had Not Been Oust­ed in 1942,” Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, 2023.

One thought on “Churchill’s Word Play: “Notability or Notoriety”

  1. I sus­pect that the quo­ta­tion whose ori­gins you seek to deter­mine comes, albeit not in so many words, from the Irish play­wright, Oscar Wilde. Mr Wilde (1854-1900) was one of the most (in)famous lit­er­ary names in the Lon­don of Churchill’s youth. It was he who once said that “some­how or oth­er, I’ll be famous; and if not famous, I’ll be noto­ri­ous.” Hope that helps.

    Thanks. Sounds like an expres­sion many would have used in one way or the oth­er. —RML

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