What Churchill did NOT say

Winston Churchill often gets credit, or blame, for “famous quotations” that he did not say.

Cartoon of Churchill speaking (frustrated?)

Misattribution is a common problem in speeches, press releases, DeathbyPowerPoint, and in all other human interaction. I believe the third or fourth most powerful human instinct is to misattribute aphorisms to admired, famous people. So in business presentations across the world today, someone will quote Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Franklin, Einstein and Churchill, as saying things they never uttered.

Below the fold, from the Churchill Centre in London, here is a collection of famous things often attributed to Winston Churchill that he did not actually say:

Quotes Falsely Attributed to Churchill

“Conservative by the time you’re 35”
“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” There is no record of anyone hearing Churchill say this. Paul Addison of Edinburgh University makes this comment: “Surely Churchill can’t have used the words attributed to him. He’d been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35! And would he have talked so disrespectfully of Clemmie, who is generally thought to have been a lifelong Liberal?”

“Cross of Lorraine”
“The hardest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.” — This remark about the intractable Charles de Gaulle was actually made by General Spears, Churchill’s envoy to France.

“Rum, sodomy and the lash”
The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash. – — Churchill’s assistant, Anthony Montague-Browne said that although Churchill had not uttered these words, he wished he had.

“What is relevant is obviously not true”
“All this contains much that is obviously true, and much that is relevant; unfortunately, what is obviously true is not relevant, and what is relevant is not obviously true.” This is not by Churchill, but Churchill quoting his colleague Arthur J. Balfour (Prime Minister, July 1902 to December 1905) in his book Great Contemporaries (London & New York, 1937, last reprinted 1990). The citation is on page 250 of the first edition, in the chapter entitled “Arthur James Balfour”: “…’there were some things that were true, and some things that were trite; but what was true was trite, and what was not trite was not true’…”

“You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.”
While often attributed to Churchill, a search of over 2.5 million words by and about Churchill in The Churchill Centre’s research database fails to show that Churchill ever spoke or wrote those words. Equally encouraging, perhaps, are words he DID utter in Dundee, Scotland, on 10 October 1908:

“What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone? How else can we put ourselves in harmonious relation with the great verities and consolations of the infinite and the eternal? And I avow my faith that we are marching towards better days. Humanity will not be cast down. We are going on swinging bravely forward along the grand high road and already behind the distant mountains is the promise of the sun.”

2 Responses to What Churchill did NOT say

  1. bernarda says:

    My favorite Churchill quote–which is apparently true–is:

    “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

    There are some slight vocabulary differences in certain citations. If this is not a true Churchill quote, please tell me.


  2. Churchill, eh? That’s odd; I’ve heard a form of the dumb-*ss con servative-by-35 pseudoquote attributed a couple of times to Walt Kelly. Churchill carries more weight, so it makes more sense to attribute it to him.

    The first time I encountered the Kelly version, in somebody’s tag line, I e-mailed him to ask just where it came from. It is, of course fantastically impossible from Kelly, no less than from Churchill. I mean, for more reasons than just that it’s completely silly and unimaginative. The reply, predictably enough, was that what did it matter where it came from, it was clever and right on, and that’s enough.

    Actually, it was Clemenceau, and not about liberals and conservatives, but Communists and non-Communists. I know this because I heard it from my mother, long before any of these other attributions.

    Seriously, she was old enough to remember a time when it was still fresh (if it was Clemenceau). Note that from the mouth of someone who has been attacked because his son was a Communist, it actually has considerable wit. Also, who among the people who cite the modified form has ever heard of Clemenceau? It has to be reattributed.

    More seriously, who knows? At least it does really make a good story with Clemenceau. But it’s not in Bartlet’s. And my first Google match is enough to cast doubt on the idea that anyone said it.

    Cf. “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil…” by pseudo-Burke.

    BTW what Kelly really did say, in the person of Porky Pine: The Rackety Coon Chile says his teacher has asked him to define the difference between a liberal and a conservative; Porky replies that the conservative is the quiet green grin of the crocodile, and the liberal is the SNAP! I never quite figured that one out, but it seems to bespeak a certain cynicism about politics.


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