23 January 2019
A new book suggests that Sir Winston Churchill may not have uttered some of the most famous witticisms attributed to him. Photo:
A new book suggests that Sir Winston Churchill may not have uttered some of the most famous witticisms attributed to him. Photo:

Famous lines that Winston Churchill never said

Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill has won an awesome reputation for quick wit, repartee and deadly putdowns, with history books full of accounts of his razor-sharp tongue. 

While his eloquence is in no doubt, given his rousing public speeches during his two terms in office — the first from 1940 to 1945, when Nazi Germany was sweeping through Europe — some of the quotes attributed to him were not actually uttered by the great man, according to a new book. 

In “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History”, Boris Johnson suggests that some of most famous lines attributed to Churchill may have been the result of fevered concoction by others. 

The wrong attributions include the much-cited putdown of Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female MP, according to Johnson, The Telegraph reports.

Popular lore has it that Astor told Churchill that if she was his wife, she would put poison in his coffee. To which Churchill is said to have replied: “Nancy, if I were your husband I would drink it.”

According to Johnson, the riposte first appeared in a joke of the day column in the Chicago Tribune in 1900.

It is unlikely that a young Churchill spotted it on his trip to America during that year and squirreled it away for use on Mrs. Astor almost 40 years later, he says.

Another favorite Churchill line, said to a civil servant who objected to the use of prepositions at the end of sentences, was: “This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.”

This joke also originally appeared in print, in Strand magazine, and may have been wrongly put in the mouth of Churchill, according to Johnson’s new book.

Among other suspect exchanges is Churchill’s supposed putdown of George Bernard Shaw.

According to that account, Shaw sent Churchill two tickets for the opening night of one of the former’s plays with the message that the British politician should “bring a friend, if you have one”.

Churchill is said to have replied that he could not make the first night, but would come on the second night “if there is one”.

Johnson says such Churchill misquotes “cling to him like burrs” because they are so easy to believe as coming from the former leader’s mouth, The Telegraph noted.

While there are many cases of wrong attributions, several anecdotes do however bear out to scrutiny. 

Among the exchanges that have indeed taken place is this one involving Bessie Braddock, a plump Labour MP and Tory-hater. 

In 1946, Braddock is said to have told Churchill: “Winston, you are drunk.” To which Churchill responded: “Madam, you are ugly, and I will be sober in the morning.” 

Another true exchange happened when Churchill was on a lecture tour of America and was served a buffet lunch of cold chicken.

“May I have some breast?” he asked his hostess, drawing the following reply: “Mr Churchill, in this country we ask for white meat or dark meat.”

The next day Churchill is said to have sent her an orchid, with the message: “I would be obliged if you would pin this on your white meat.”

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