The Grammarphobia Blog

Behind the Iron Curtain

Q: A recent article in the New York Times Book Review says Winston Churchill coined the term “Iron Curtain.” Churchill, as you’ve written, is a notorious quote magnet, which prompts my question: Did he actually come up with the metaphor or is this another ersatz Churchillism?

A: Max Frankel, in a Nov. 25, 2012, review of Anne Applebaum’s book Iron Curtain, says Churchill “coined the metaphor in a message to President Truman a full year before he used it in public in Fulton, Mo.”

Frankel was referring to a May 12, 1945, telegram from Churchill to Truman, and a March 5, 1946, address by the British Prime Minister at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.

You’re right that Churchill is a notorious quotation magnet, as we noted in a posting earlier this month.

An oft-quoted example (in one form or another) is the mythological response to a pedant who dared tinker with his writing: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

Did Churchill coin “Iron Curtain”? No, but his speech at Westminster College helped popularize the term as a metaphor for the divide between the former Soviet bloc and the rest of the world.

As it turns out, the phrase “iron curtain” first showed up in English more than a century before the Russian Revolution, in a much different context. But first let’s look at the figurative usage you’ve asked about.

The earliest example of the usage in The Yale Book of Quotations is by the English reformer Ethel Snowden, though she used the term two years before the Soviet Union was officially established.

In her 1920 book Through Bolshevik Russia, Snowden writes: “We were behind the ‘iron curtain’ at last!”

The Yale reference, edited by Fred R. Shapiro (who coined the term “quotation magnet”), cites two other early examples of the usage, and one of them preceded Churchill’s:

“At present an iron curtain of silence has descended, cutting off the Russian zone from the Western Allies.” (T. St. Vincent Trowbridge, a British army officer, quoted in the Oct. 21, 1945, issue of the Sunday Empire News.)

“Over all this territory, which with the Soviet Union included, would be of enormous extent, an iron curtain would at once descend.” (Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, in the Feb. 25, 1945, issue of Das Reich.)

The Oxford English Dictionary cites another Goebbels example in which the German word vorhang is translated by the Times of London as “screen” instead of “curtain.” (Our two German dictionaries translate it as “curtain.”)

In the Feb. 23, 1945, issue of the Times, Goebbels is quoted as saying: “If the German people lay down their arms, the whole of eastern and south-eastern Europe, together with the Reich, would come under Russian occupation. Behind an iron screen [ein eiserner Vorhang] mass butcheries of peoples would begin.”

A letter to the editor of the New York Times Times Book Review, commenting on the review you asked about, noted on Dec. 16 that the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal used the phrase in a May 1943 article entitled Hinter dem Eisernen Vorhang (“Behind the Iron Curtain”).

As we mentioned above, the phrase “iron curtain” was around for more than a century before the Russian Revolution. In fact, it first showed up in English before Karl Marx was a gleam in his mother’s eye.

In the late 18th century, it was a theatrical term for a literal iron curtain that could be lowered between the stage and the auditorium.

A citation from the March 13, 1794, issue of the Times of London says “an iron curtain has been contrived, which, on such occasion [of fire], would compleatly prevent all communication between the audience and stage.”

By the early 19th century, the phrase was being used figuratively to refer to any impenetrable barrier, according to published references in the OED.

Here’s an example from the Earl of Munster’s 1819 journal of a trip across India: On the 19th November we crossed the river Betwah, and as if an iron curtain had dropt between us and the avenging angel, the deaths diminished.”

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