THE WICKED WIT OF WINSTON CHURCHILL #2
From the book of the same name by Enright
TERMINOLOGICAL DIVERSIONS: WORDS!!
Churchill's love of words revealed itself above all in the way he
enjoyed playing with them. On one occasion it ensured that he
lost a game of golf. Violet Bonham-Carter described a round of
golf he was playing against her father, the Prime Minister
Herbert Asquith. Churchill, who could play a good game when not
diverted - but was easily diverted - was well ahead of Asquith
until he spotted a shrub with orange berries. Violet Asquith, as
she then was, told him it was buckthorn, 'the olive of the
north'. 'He rose,' she wrote, 'like a trout to the fly of any
phrase and his attention was immediately arrested and deflected
from the game. "The olive of the north - that's good. The
buckthorn of the south - that's not so good" and during the
remaining holes he rang the changes on every possible combination
and permutation of this meagre theme, which took his mind and eye
completely off the ball.' To Asquith's delight Churchill didn't
hit another ball that afternoon and lost the game.
During his long life, Churchill - as a boy noted for failing
exams - received many honorary degrees. In 1946, at the
University of Miami, on being awarded his doctorate of law, he
remarked, with a neat allusion to a famous line he'd uttered some
six years before: 'Perhaps no one has ever passed so few
examinations and received so many degrees.'
'Men will forgive a man anything except bad prose.' It sounds
more as though Churchill were referring to himself here, in his
election speech in Manchester, 1906.
In one of the many documents that came WSC's way, a civil servant
had gone out of his way to be grammatically correct, and had
clumsily avoided ending a sentence with a preposition. Churchill
scribbled in the margin: 'This is the sort of English up with
which I will not put.'
'We must have a better word than "prefabricated". Why not
"ready-made"?' he complained another time. He was, however, happy
to use polysyllabic terms himself on occasion - the difference
being that it was often in a spirit of lightheartedness, irony or
condescension. In 1906, referring to the government's denials of
the exploitation of Chinese coolies in South Africa, he said,
'Perhaps we have been guilty of some terminological
'Short words are best and the old words when short are best of
As is clear from the sections on politics and friends, it is not
only terminological inexactitudes that flew (and fly) around the
House of Commons. It is a happy hunting ground for the collectors
of insults, and WSC once remarked: 'I do not think any expression
of scorn or severity which I have heard used by our critics has
come anywhere near the language I have been myself accustomed to
use, not only orally, but in a stream of written minutes. In
fact, I wonder that a great many of my colleagues are on speaking
terms with me.'
There is a story that an American general once asked Churchill to
look over the draft of an address he had written. It was returned
with the comment 'Too many passives and too many zeds.' The
general asked him what he meant, and was told: 'Too many Latinate
polysyllabics like "systematize", "prioritize" and "finalize".
And then the passives. What if I had said, instead of "We shall
fight on the beaches", "Hostilities will be engaged with our
adversary on the coastal perimeter"?'
'The Times is speechless and takes three columns to express its
speechlessness.' (This was on the issue of Irish Home Rule.)
Legend has it that on one occasion, as Churchill was addressing
the House of Commons, a Member of Parliament called Wilfred
Paling stood up and shouted, 'You dirty dog!' The rejoinder was
swift and inevitable: 'Yes. And the Honourable Member should
remember what dirty dogs do to palings!'
WSC, always appreciative of words, enjoyed people's names, even
if he might sometimes have given some cause for offence. As last
of the so-called Hanging Judges, Rayner Goddard (Lord Chief
justice 1946-58) became 'Lord Goddamn'. While, at the Admiralty,
Churchill's principal Private Secretary was called Eric Seal,
appropriately enough, and it gave Churchill much pleasure to be
able to ask a secretary to 'Fetch Seal from his ice-floe'. And
when the name of Sir Alfred Bossom came up, his comment was:
'Bossom? What an extraordinary name. Neither one thing nor the
And Admiral Sir Dudley Pound had a name that could be played with
... on receiving a report from the Admiral with which he did not
agree, Churchill wrote under Pound's signature: 'Penny wise'.
'The essential structure of the ordinary British sentence ... is
a noble thing.'
'I think "No comment" is a splendid expression. I am using it
again and again. I got it from Sumner Welles,' WSC informed
reporters at Washington airport as he was leaving after a
conference at the White House with President Truman in February
1946. (Sumner Welles, the American diplomat and writer, was US
Under-Secretary of State 1937-42.)
General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson - 'Jumbo' - C-in-C, Middle
East, was selected in September 1943 to take the Greek island of
Leros with a comparatively small number of troops. 'This is the
time to play high,' WSC encouraged him. 'Improvise and dare.'
Later he wrote of the General: 'He improvose and dore.'
During the war, at a time when British shipping losses were
particularly heavy, both the press and the BBC solemnly
reiterated and emphasized the many reports of losses. In a memo
to the Admiralty Churchill complained wearily: 'Must we have this
lugubrious ingemination of the news of our shipping losses?'
Baffled Admiralty staff, thinking his secretary must have
mistyped 'insemination', hurried to their dictionaries - to learn
that 'ingemination' means 'reiteration'.
Churchill could not resist puns, even when the circumstances
perhaps did not call for levity. When on a tour of Africa in
1907, he was informed by a Colonial Governor that venereal
disease was spreading at an alarming rate among the 'natives'.
'Ah, Pox Britannica!' Churchill diagnosed.
On the same journey, after a march of over a hundred miles,
Churchill turned to his Private Secretary Eddie Marsh and said,
'So fari - so goodi!'
On a Member's statement that economic planning was baloney: 'I
should prefer to have an agreed definition of the meaning of
"baloney" before I attempt to deal with such a topic.'
WHAT A CHARACTER! THAT IS ALL SO FUNNY. FOR A FELLOW WHO FAILED
MORE EXAMS THAN HE PASSED, THAT IS A LESSON IN SELF-EDUCATION.
SEE WHAT YOU CAN DO IF YOU PUT YOUR MIND TO IT - YOU CAN EDUCATE