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Blood, toil, tears, and quotes

Q: In your article for Smithsonian earlier in the year, you say it’s a myth that Winston Churchill responded to a pedant by scribbling, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” I’ve always thought that clever and so obviously Churchillian. The American Heritage Book of blah blah blah says he said it. The Oxford Companion to blah blah blah says he said it. You call it a myth, so is this a fact?

A: We’ve seen umpteen versions of the quotation and just as many descriptions of the incident that prompted  it.

In the most common version, Churchill scribbled the remark in the margin of a document after a pedant dared to tinker with the great man’s writing to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.

However, no such document has ever surfaced. And there’s no solid evidence that one ever existed. You can believe what you want. We’ll believe it when someone comes up with the document, complete with Churchillian scribbles.

Word sleuths have searched high and low for proof that Churchill wrote or said something of the sort, using all the research tools of the digital age. So far, that proof hasn’t been found. And what little evidence there is suggests that someone else said it.

We’re not sure which references you mean when you refer to the American Heritage Book of blah blah blah and the Oxford Companion to blah blah blah.

Although the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations does attribute the remark to Churchill, its source is quite iffy—a half-hearted citation by Sir Ernest Gowers.

In his 1948 book Plain Words, Gowers qualified his remarks: “It is said that Mr. Winston Churchill once made this marginal comment.”

Because of space limitations, we didn’t have a chance to go into detail about this questionable quote in our Smithsonian article. However, we discussed it extensively in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. Here’s an excerpt:

“Over the years, numerous versions of the quote and the incident that provoked it have circulated on both sides of the Atlantic, all of them claiming to be the genuine article. In various incarnations of the story, Churchill blusters not only at ‘the sort of English,’ but also at the ‘stilted English,’ ‘arrant pedantry,’ ‘errant pedantry,’ ‘errant criticism,’ ‘offensive impertinence,’ ‘insubordination,’ ‘bloody nonsense,’ ‘tedious nonsense,’ ‘pedantic nonsense,’ and … you get the idea. As for the end of the quote, it can be ‘up with which I will not put,’ ‘up with which I shall not put,’ ‘with which I will not put up,’ or ‘which I will not put up with.’

“The provocation that supposedly got Churchill so worked up? It’s sometimes a government document clumsily written by someone else, and at other times it’s clumsy editing of the great man’s own writing— here a book, there a speech, perhaps a memo or whatever. With so many genuine articles to choose from, it would take a linguistic anthropologist to track down the real story. Fortunately, one has. Benjamin G. Zimmer has traced the quotation to a 1942 article in The Wall Street Journal, citing an earlier mention in The Strand Magazine. The ‘offensive impertinence’ version of the quote is there, but (surprise!) Churchill is missing. The witticism is attributed to an unnamed writer in ‘a certain Government department.’

“It wasn’t until two years later that the quote (this time it’s the ‘tedious nonsense’ version) was pinned on Churchill. On February 27, 1944, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times all ran brief items from London saying Churchill had scrawled the remark on a ‘long, rambling’ government document— and that he’d done it only the week before.”

Is it a fact, you ask, that the attribution of the quotation to Churchill is a myth? In Origins of the Specious, we say it’s probably apocryphal. That’s perhaps a more accurate way of describing it.

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