Churchill had an incredibly quick mind, a sharp tongue and a very large vocabulary. He loved playing with words – creating new ones, adapting old ones – and using words to his advantage, quite often at the expense of others (although sometimes at his own, too!) Many of his speeches – and quotes from those speeches – are very well known, but his witticisms, bon mots, jokes and puns are perhaps less well recorded (or often misattributed). Churchill had a mischievous sense of wit. This couldn’t really be called ‘humour’; he wasn’t usually trying to be funny or make people laugh; nor did he tell bawdy or ribald jokes; this wasn’t in his nature. But he did enjoy the neatness and cleverness of a well-placed and carefully judged retort. He didn’t hesitate to use his particular talent with words on others. He had certain ‘sparring partners’ (as Richard Langworth puts it) who prompted him to fire off a quick riposte. Although these might have seemed off the cuff and spontaneous, they were generally carefully rehearsed, words carefully selected for punning potential, stored in his prodigious memory and then released on their unsuspecting recipient at the right moment. In 2013, he topped a poll of ‘history’s funniest insults’. Read more – and see the full list – here. In the Dictionary of Humorous Political Quotations, there’s a Churchill quote on nearly every page. As this journalist said, he’s the last word in political wit.
Man of Words
In his lifetime Churchill published more than forty books in sixty volumes, as well as hundreds of articles. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his contribution to the written and spoken word. While he is celebrated for his wit and colourful quotations, it is for the impact of his speeches and broadcasts that he is now justly remembered as a Man of Words. Whether warning of the dangers of fascism, rallying the British nation against attack or wrestling with the problems of the Cold War, ‘he mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’. You will already know lots of Churchillian phrases, even if you don’t realise they were spoken by Churchill: ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’(often misquoted as ‘blood, sweat and tears’), ‘this was their finest Hour’, ‘never … was so much owed by so many to so few’. This Churchill: Man of Words section will help you learn more about how Winston Churchill, how the man became the master of words.
‘I feel devoutly thankful to have been born fond of writing.’
Churchill, Authors’ Club, London, 17 February 1908
Churchill wasn’t only interested in writing history, biography and autobiography (with the odd dabbling in fiction and counterfactual fantasy). During his ‘wilderness years’, in the 1930s, Churchill took on the profitable (for him) role as screenwriter and adviser to the Hungarian-born film director Alexander Korda in Hollywood. He even acted as adviser and coach to a potential actor in what was a doomed early film adaptation of T. E. Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert (Korda had bought the film rights to both this and Seven Pillars of Wisdom, later selling the film rights to Sam Spiegel and the director David Lean who went on to make the award-winning Lawrence of Arabia). Throughout his life, Churchill always read the latest fiction and non-fiction – and not just history. He counted among his friends and acquaintances literary figures of the day such as Somerset Maugham, Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’). He’d worked closely with the latter in a professional capacity, while Colonial Secretary in the 1920s – he was just the sort of adventurer that appealed to Churchill – but he also admired his writing. While Churchill shared an interest in the science fiction – although not necessarily the politics – of H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Jules Verne, he didn’t tend to hold back on expressing his opinions of other writers of the day, particularly if their politics didn’t accord with his.
In the 1950s, Churchill devoted more and more time to reading the classics of literature. In 1953, he had been reading Trollope, the Brontes, Hardy and Scot, when he heard in October that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This wasn’t, as some assume, for his work on The Second World War (the final and sixth volume was to be published in November 1953)but in recognition of his life-long commitment to – and mastery of – the written and spoken word. He was disappointed that it was not the Peace Prize. He was in Bermuda when the prizes were to be presented by the King of Sweden in Stockholm – there was no question which event took precedence – and Clementine accepted the award on his behalf.
Much of his writing was done at Chartwell, the country house he bought in 1922 and then gradually, and at great expense, renovated. You too can see the same desk – and study, library, drawing room – at Chartwell. Downstairs at Chartwell, there’s a room with maps on the wall and a telephone exchange; this is where all his researchers – junior (and less junior) academics from Oxford, research fellows – worked away, day after day, searching out nuggets of information and documents, looking for material for Churchill to weave into his books. Over sixty thousand books to supplement their research were housed in the Library, its towering shelves laden with volumes. Churchill used a special table – an upright desk – built to his design, for checking his drafts, for making all those changes that enhanced his writing and his speech-making; polishing them, incorporating all his favourite words and phrases, always with an eye – and an ear – for the most powerful and emotive emphasis and effect. See Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor, particularly Chapter 6, ‘The Great Dictator’, where he points out that Churchill produced not only more words than Charles Dickens, or more words than Shakespeare – but more than both of them put together!
Shortly after his return from Fulton in 1946, Churchill began to write his war memoirs. With a team of researchers beavering away on his behalf, he had a very ordered (if somewhat laborious) approach to drafting and editing. He would pull together all his documents (or get his researchers to pull them together) – minutes, telegrams, letters – and then would track down material from other sources, too. Churchill would then begin to draft the text which would link all the documents together, dictating to a team of secretaries, often late into the night. Just as he did with all his speeches, he’d check drafts, check proofs, marking them up at each stage with copious corrections, determined to get the right word, the right phrase. Despite such a laborious process (or perhaps because of it), The Second World War appeared relatively quickly, in six volumes, between 1948 and 1954. Churchill never claimed the memoirs were ‘history’; they were rather a contribution to history. Although their very breadth and coverage gave the impression that they were a definitive account, there were omissions, of course. The Second World War was Churchill’s interpretation of the events, the work of a man seeking to place his role in the war – and in history. The books sold well, with a combined first printing of over 800,000 copies.
He took on paid lecture tours, writing books and popular newspaper articles (he had, after all, been one of the highest paid war correspondents in the world to supplement his income and to ensure he could still buy plenty of Pol Roger Champagne.
He even turned his ‘New York Misadventure’ – when he was seriously injured while in New York in December 1931 – into a story. Having been knocked down by a car when stepping off a pavement to cross busy Fifth Avenue, he then dictated a thousand words from his hospital bed for two newspaper articles under the headings ‘I was conscious through it all’ and ‘My New York Misadventure’.
Churchill was now firmly established as a successful journalist and writer. He was commissioned, in 1903, to write a biography of his father, Lord Randolph, with an advance of £8000 – a very healthy sum. With remarkable speed, he produced two volumes and they were published in 1906. Most reviews were positive, admiring the style and Churchill’s unbiased approach but some weren’t impressed. Over the next few decades, he wrote another biography (of Marlborough, his illustrious ancestor, in four volumes), two volumes of autobiography (My African Journey, My Early Life) and three massive histories (The World Crisis, The Second World War, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples). My African Journey (1908): a hunting expedition to east Africa in the autumn of 1907 turned into an enquiry into colonial affairs and resulted in a series of articles for the Pall Mall Gazette, which were later turned into his only travelogue (1908). The World Crisis (1923–31): Churchill’s memoirs covering the years 1911–1928. In October 1922, when Churchill was out of Parliament for the first time in twenty-two years (apart from a few weeks in 1908), he took up writing again and embarked on his mammoth history of the First World War (and the pre- and post-war years), The World Crisis. It was published in 5 parts or volumes (in six books; confusingly, one ‘volume’ was spread over two books) over the years 1923 to 1931.
Churchill travelled to India with his regiment to fight against Pathan and Afghan tribesmen on the North-West frontier, armed with a contract as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. The campaign became the topic of Churchill’s first book, published in March 1898 – The Story of the Malakand Field Force. Then in 1895, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers to the Sudan, while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post. He later turned his news reports into a surprisingly sympathetic two-volume account in The River War (1899). In 1899, after a brief return to England and having left the army, the Boer War broke out and Churchill headed off again, with another assignment from the Morning Post.
Contrary to popular opinion (an opinion encouraged by Churchill himself in his autobiography, My Early Life), he was actually quite good at some subjects at school. He was particularly good at English and history, both subjects in which he showed considerable promise. This early promise was borne out when he became a war correspondent, sending dispatches back to London from far-flung parts of the Empire for newspapers. He was determined to get himself noticed and to get himself into politics – and, for an adventurous, reckless young man on a mission, this seemed as good a way as any. Between 1897 and 1900, with the help of his mother’s lobbying, he fought in three of Queen Victoria’s wars while doubling up as a war correspondent. He quickly turned all three experiences into books. His literary career was off to a flying start.
Churchill had a great gift with words. His speeches clearly demonstrate that. But he was also a prolific writer of books and articles; in his lifetime, he published more than forty books in sixty volumes, as well as hundreds of articles. The total now stands at fifty-one individual works (eleven posthumous) in eighty volumes (twenty-one posthumous). During his lifetime, he was a celebrated – and very well-paid – journalist and a very successful author. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his contribution to the written and spoken word. How did someone who purportedly wasn’t much of a student at school, manage to become so well known, so widely read and so highly regarded as a writer? For ‘trivia’ about Churchill’s literary life, see this article in Finest Hour. For a full list of all Churchill’s books, and a brief description of each, see the same site here. A comprehensive selection of Churchill’s books – first editions, quality second-hand – as well as books about Churchill, visit Chartwell Booksellers, the independent bookstore in New York, the only physical bookshop devoted to his writings.
Influencing Speech-Makers of Today – and Tomorrow Churchill's speeches are often used as inspiration
Churchill’s style of speech-making has been copied by many of today’s leaders, echoing his phrasing, rhythm and language. In February 1941, Churchill made a famous speech to the British, but aimed at the Americans (to summon supplies needed for victory in the war) – his ‘Appeal to America’. He varied his tone, rhythm and hesitation. All this was part of his ‘stagecraft’, a trick of oratory to increase emphasis and effect. He used simple, direct language to get a very clear message across. George W. Bush was to use very similar words and phrasing in 2001, in his State of the Union address after attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 (11 September 2001). Listen to George Bush’s speech here; the phrase ‘we will not waver, we will not tire’ comes towards the end, at 6.14 mins. For the full text of his address, see the transcription by the White House, here.
Churchill’s speech-making didn’t always go well. Even great speakers ‘dry up’. Although he had a phenomenal memory (he’d won a prize at school for reciting great reams of poetry), learning speeches by heart clearly wasn’t enough. Even though he meticulously rehearsed them beforehand, there was always the possibility of forgetting his lines. In the spring of 1904, making a speech in the House of Commons, he’d been speaking for forty-five minutes when – without notes to hand – he forgot his words. He struggled for ‘the most embarrassing 3 minutes of my life’, trying to remember the rest of his speech, and then sat down in silence, humiliated. So even great speakers can find public speaking difficult and stressful. After this confidence-shattering experience, Churchill nearly always prepared full notes – and had them to hand – to prevent this happening again. And thanks to this, the Churchill Archives Centre contains lots of Churchill’s speeches notes. (No wonder ‘presentation skills’ experts encourage the use of those small cards with speaking notes or handy PowerPoint slides as prompts…)
Churchill drafted his speeches several times and wrote them out in a way that would help him deliver them effectively. He rehearsed passages, again and again, pacing his rooms, repeating them out loud, learning whole speeches by heart. He developed a unique oratorical style that both covered up and employed his speech difficulties so that his ‘lisp’ – or ‘stammer’, which could occasionally seem like a groping for words – became a prop, not a hindrance. Until old age, Churchill wrote every speech himself, usually by dictating to a secretary and then revising on the typed copy. He would then ask them to present the words on the page in ‘speech form’, in the style of a poem, with staggered lines and breaks in the text (referred to by others as ‘psalm style’), so that he could see at a glance where to pause, hesitate or add emphasis, when delivering the lines. He was a relentless reviser of his speeches – as he was with his books, too – and made numerous drafts. The final version would be retyped on smaller sheets, the size of notepaper, and even these would show last-minute changes to the text, with crossings-out and added scribbled words.
Churchill’s first public speech was an impromptu one, when – in his last term at Sandhurst and on a visit to the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square – he called for makeshift barriers between the sexes, erected to prevent prostitutes from mingling with theatre-goers in the bar, to be pulled down (an unlikely cause for a nineteen-year-old young man): ‘Ladies of the Empire, I stand for Liberty!’
‘He is a remarkable fellow – perhaps the finest orator in America, with a gigantic C. J. [Charles James] Fox head – & a mind that has influenced my thought in more than one important direction.’
Churchill, writing about Bourke Cockran in a letter to Clementine, 30 May 1909, in Soames, Speaking for Themselves
Although he always regarded his first political speech as one he gave at a picnic of the Primrose League (a Conservative organisation) in July 1897 (aged twenty two and still a serving officer on leave from his regiment in India), his true maiden speech in the House of Commons was on 18 February 1901.
Churchill wasn’t a born orator. He worked very hard to transform himself into a great public speaker. He didn’t have a particularly attractive speaking voice. Early in his career, he talked in a monotone, without much change in pitch, pace or volume. He also suffered from a speech impediment – he had difficulty pronouncing the letter “s”, not helpful in a public speaker. But he understood the power that words, both written and spoken, could have on an audience and was determined to master public speaking – and do it well. At the age of only twenty-two, when he’d only made one public speech, he wrote an unpublished article on the art of speaking. He clearly realised the effect a really good speech could have on its audience.
‘Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.’
Churchill, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, his unpublished essay of 1897