Churchillian Drift

A student a few years ago asked me, after I fired off a gobbet for his immediate and eternal edification, “Mr. McCants, do you ever quote anything besides the Bible and Shakespeare?” To which I responded, “Greg, what else is there?”

Churchill is often in that pantheon of quotable wits. My Greek History students certainly know one of his quips: Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English; and then I would let the clever learn Latin as an honor and Greek as a treat. I have found this quote myself from, among other places, my favorite book on Churchill, An Informal Study of Greatness, by Robert Lewis Tayor.

There is a short piece in The Wall Street Journal about Lord Churchill and how much of his “quotes” do not belong to the late Prime Minister (Lee Pollock, “Don’t Quote Churchill on That,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 Dec 2017):

Churchill produced more than 15 million words during his lifetime, making him a fertile source for commentators of all stripes. Buried in that mountain of copy is something for everyone. But with these repeated citations has come “Churchillian drift”—the never-ending circulation of Churchillisms that sound right but are, in fact, wrong.

As an armchair Churchillian, who often quotes him, there is an important lesson here—who we quote, what we quote, and the source of the quote.

The short article unearths a number of popular quips attributed to Churchill but aren’t actually his, for example, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” The sentiment is no doubt useful and a right nice phrase, clear and precise, which one wants in a pithy, memorable verse.

What this often leads to, however, is the clever for the use of the context. I regularly quote the Holy Scripture, and I often try to site at least the book (e.g., “St. Mark’s Gospel”) and the chapter. I don’t do this only to add heft to the quote but to give the story and the situatedness of the quote (“Sermon on the Mount,” “Farewell Discourses,” “Henry’s Speech before the Battle of Agincourt,” etc.)

In this age of memes and shallow work, this issue has become legion. As the article’s author notes,

The internet aggravates Churchillian drift—and also, presumably, the comparable drift for quotes from Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and others. The accuracy of almost any line or anecdote is easily verifiable online, but erroneous words have such a head start and travel so fast that the truth indeed is still putting on its pants.

The point is to do the deep work of reading and meditating on the texts oneself and not to rely on the wiki authors who float or let drift these pithy but unverified turns of phrase into our common conversation.

Should Churchill admirers care about Churchillian drift? Yes, but perhaps only to a point. People thirsting for leadership embrace inspiring figures from the past. Invoking the Great Man deserves encouragement, sometimes even at the price of a qualifying “attributed to.”

Even if it’s our own translation of the author’s sentiments—and in dealing with other languages, a translation is the best we can do—it’s important to work their wisdom into our own words.