The greatest words Churchill never uttered

During World War II, when it was suggested that funding for the arts should be cut, Winston Churchill had other ideas.

“What are we fighting for then?”

The words say so much about the importance of the arts in our society, and in the value in knowing what you are fighting for.

But unfortunately, Churchill never uttered them. He might have said something similar, and, if you tried, you could see that he meant something like the quote, but you’ll have to squint.

In 1941 when the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was first published, it all seemed much simpler. At the time, it was taken for granted that a quotation was a familiar line from a great poet or a famous figure in history, and the source could easily be found in standard literary works or history books.

In the era of fake news and alternative facts, it is increasingly hard to know what to believe, particularly when misquotes can spread at the speed that social media and 24-hour news sources allow.

In addition, it can be difficult to question the accuracy of a particular quote when we really, really want it to have been what our heroes said; it is comforting and reassuring to know that individuals of power and prestige have expressed opinions that align with our own, and one well-expressed line can have more impact than any scholarly essay or detailed speech. And so, we republish their words on our own social media accounts and blogs, validating our own beliefs and interests.

I was thrilled and moved when I heard that CS Lewis had said,

“We read to know that we’re not alone”,

Here was the great writer, putting into words something I had always felt, but never articulated. I felt a sense of kinship with the great CS Lewis. I understood him, and somehow, he understood me. We both held books as providing a kind of comfort and companionship.

However, kindred spirits we were not. It turned out the words had not a flash of truth and brilliance conceived by CS Lewis, but the line was actually given to his character in the film Shadowlands, and so the credit for it should really be given to the screenwriter William Nicholson.

It is not hard to see how these misquotes can take hold, as unfortunately, sometimes the misquote is mightier than the more accurate version.

In the case of Churchill’s quote, he did speak in support of the arts at more length than the more famous misquote, including saying,

“The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them. The country possesses in the Royal Academy an institution of wealth and power for the purpose of encouraging the arts of painting and sculpture…”

And so, the powerful and succinct  misquotes are spread far and wide across the digital sphere, becoming synonymous with those who never uttered those particular words. Here, they are used to support argument and debate, strengthening a viewpoint with the weight of the words of a historical statesman.

However, while the internet might make it easier for misquotes (as well as other types of misinformation) to spread, through retweets, shares and even publication by fast-moving, 24-hour news services, technology has not had an entirely detrimental impact on the reliability of quotations. In some ways, it has made direct quotes much easier to source.

Words that might have seemed impossible coming from a US President are easy to trace to their origin through Twitter. While in the past, political leaders might have claimed they never said such a thing, criticising the height and girth of another world leader, the evidence is conclusive. And when phones can be used to record the words of public figures, and celebrities, the evidence is irrefutable.

An individual’s words can tell a powerful story about who they are and what they believe. They can help us form our own opinions, reinforcing prejudices or opening minds. But before we gleefully proclaim our favourite past prime minister made a critical point about the arts for us decades ago, it is useful to check the sources. Those words might be convincing, eloquent and erudite, but the might not have been his at all.

By Fleur Morrison, Marketing and Communications Advisor, OUP Australia

The Little Oxford Gift Box

A Christmas favourite, The Little Oxford Gift Box features the popular Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs and Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

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