27 March 2023

Never give in to lazy fact checkers.

I wonder if Winston Churchill would be amused or annoyed if he knew of all the brilliant quotes and witticisms attributed to him that he never actually wrote or said. 

I’ll answer my own question.  I think he’d find the assumption that any clever statement be automatically attributed to him as entirely appropriate, while being insulted by the reckless propagation of the mangled misrepresentations or outright fictions posing as the genuine article.  If you Google “Never give up – Winston Churchill” you’ll get literally thousands of references to an alleged commencement address in which he stood up, repeated “Never give up” three times, and then sat down again. 

Didn’t happen.  What he did was deliver an impromptu talk to students at Harrow School, his alma mater, which contained these words:  “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never--in nothing, great or small, large or petty--never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Humphrey Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam.”  He said, “If you played it for her, you can play it for me.  Play it, Sam.”

We don’t know for sure if Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”  Or any of the numerous variants which people also report via Google as if it’s absolute, irrefutable fact.

Except for those who attribute that quote or something similar to T.S. Eliot, who we do know for sure wrote:  "…one of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows.  Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."

We know this because it’s written down, and we can look it up.  As is Churchill’s speech. 

You might say, what’s the harm in a little misquoting?  These are all famous smart guys, and the quotes are close enough, and worth repeating.

Maybe no harm.  Except to the truth.  It seems to me that the lines between truth and fiction are in danger of a permanent blurring with the flood of unexamined information coming over the internet, and the passive disregard presumed professional journalists and commentators seem to have toward accuracy or clarity of meaning, especially when the pesky facts get in the way of their bold assertions or hypotheses. 

We’ve arrived at a point where Rudy Giuliani asserts that “Truth isn’t truth,”  people make jokes about alternative facts or have to pledge their allegiance to the “reality-based community”, or have most of the country still believing that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were golfing partners (they weren’t), or that Democratic operatives printed up millions of fake ballots (they didn’t), it might be a good time to reassert the importance of knowing and telling the truth. 

I did some time as an editor, and I had to make these judgement calls between what is legitimately imagined, and what should stand as facts, things that exist within the world of the book's context that we all recognize.  One recalcitrant writer accused me, after I corrected a blizzard of factual errors and misapprehensions, of not understanding that this was just fiction.  "I can write anything I want," he wrote.  "It's all made up."  

Well, not really.  I believe writers, even mystery writers, have an obligation to get as close as possible to the things in the world that are true, and confirmable, even if we’re writing fiction.  The stuff you make up, of course, is all yours.  But if you’re chasing a car heading uptown, you’re going north.  Camden is across the Delaware from Philly to the east.  (I’ve seen both items improperly reversed.  Fire the copy editor!)

Historical novelists are masters of this.  They know that sweating the details of their period of choice, getting all the essentials as correct as possible, makes their stories that much more believable and fulfilling.  

My personal standard is I never want a lawyer, investment manager, car mechanic, gun expert, forensic scientist, archeologist, drug dealer or cowboy, when reading a relevant passage of mine, ever think, "That's not how it happens. "

By the way, William Manchester, in researching his biographies of Churchill, claimed to have run down every one of those popular attributions.  He insisted that Churchill did indeed tangle with an opinionated English lady one evening who told him, “Winston, you are drunk.”  To which he replied, “Madam, you are ugly.  In the morning I shall be sober.”

That one I choose to believe is true. 



  1. Good piece. I understand that folklorists note that anecdotes move from the less famous to the more famous. So a rumor that starts out about the Joes Soda Company will eventually be told about Coca-Cola, but the reverse doesn't happen. An in the same way, quotations from relatively obscure people get attributed to Lincoln, Twain, Churchill, Wilde, etc. Drives me nuts. A good place to check quotes is https://quoteinvestigator.com/

  2. I love those Churchill quotes, true or not. The lady in that conversation with Churchill was supposedly Lady Astor, though the conversation wasn't mentioned in the biography I read of her. (Lady Astor had a fascinating life - she grew up in central Virginia, married an Englishman, and became the first female Member of Parliament.)

    1. Another oft-reported exchange between Winston and Lady Astor probably didn't happen. But like you, I love it anyway. She supposedly said something like, "If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea." And he responded, "Madame, if you were my wife, I'd drink it."

  3. Absolutely. I check, oh do I check! And I still get some stuff wrong. But I'm all in on the last quote, supposedly to Lady Astor, mainly because that is pure Winston - he wasn't mealy-mouthed. And his WW2 speeches were breathtaking: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival." Sounds like the current situation in Ukraine to me.

    1. Eve, with Russia going for the long haul and fighting a war of attrition, this is a good time to bring up Churchill's WW2 speech. Thank you.

  4. Years ago, the leader of a workshop I attended, reminded us that many people get their information from novels or TV drama, so we have an obligation to get the facts right. How many people still think DNA tests get done in 24 hours or that a silencer (supressor) will work on a revolver, just to give a couple of common examples.

    Years ago, one of my books had a plot that hinged on the fact that a character was diabetic. I talked to two or three diabetic friends I knew, took careful notes...and then misread them and screwed up the information in my book. A reviewer called me on it, and I felt like the world's biggest idiot.

    A couple of years ago, I read a very good short story inspired by the 60's song "Wooden Ships" by Crosby, Stills and Nash. But the writer mentioned the wind in the sails (and maybe seagulls?) at the beginning of the track. Alas, the sound effects appear on the version by Jefferson Airplane, released several months later. The editor didn't catch it. I felt really smart and superior for whole seconds.

    1. Steve, I have some sort of dyslexia-like transpositional disorder where I get left and right mixed up (and north and south). So I made the mistake of calling a red buoy a can instead of a nun. Never so many irate emails from sailors. I wrote them all back and apologized. I also put a safety on a Glock, which it doesn't have. Second largest pile of irate readers. Gun enthusiasts, even more vociferous than sailors. I've learned my lesson

  5. Nothing annoys me faster than anachronisms in historical fiction. Lately, I've read several books where the main character is given modern thoughts on modern political issues-- issues that weren't on anyone's radar in the era in which the story was set and, if they were, would not have been expressed in the terms the author used for the character. I don't mind if the author makes a character forward thinking for their era, but the issue has to at least exist in some context in that era.

  6. A capable historical novelist would never do that. They kill themselves researching every detail. Looking at you, Jim Benn. Mistakes are made, of course, but you can tell right away the ones who don't put in the time and effort.


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