Winston Churchill? Evan Esar? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following humorous definition is often attributed to the statesman Winston Churchill:
A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.
Could you explore the accuracy of this ascription?
Quote Investigator: There is some evidence that Winston Churchill employed this phrase circa 1952 because it is listed in an important compilation of quotations created by Churchill’s friend Kay Halle who was a journalist. Details for this citation are given further below.
Yet, the first evidence of this saying located by QI was printed nearly a decade earlier in the 1943 volume “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” by Evan Esar. Entries in this collection were formatted as definitions; for example, here were two humorous explications listed for the word “fanatic”: 1
A person who redoubles his efforts after having forgotten his aims.
One who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject.
No attribution was provided by Esar, and the wording was slightly different in this instance: “opinion” was used instead of “mind”.
In 1945 the quip appeared in a column titled “Dizzy Daffynitions” by Paul H. Gilbert published in the “Oakland Tribune” of Oakland, California: 2
FANATIC: One who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In July 1949 an instance was printed in the high-circulation periodical “Reader’s Digest” with an acknowledgment to a newspaper in Pennsylvania: 3
Fanatic: One who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject. — Philadelphia Inquirer
In August 1949 “The Attica News” printed a column titled “I’d Like to Know” by a writer using the fanciful name “SO-AN-SO” which included an instance of the joke with the word “mind” instead of “opinion”: 4
Isn’t a fanatic one who won’t change his mind and won’t let you change the subject?
In December 1949 the comical remark appeared in “The Seattle Times” of Seattle, Washington together with an acknowledgement pointing to another newspaper: 5
Fanatic: One who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject.–Everson News.
In February 1951 the joke was printed in the “Class Notes” section of the “Princeton Alumni Weekly”: 6
A fanatic is said to be a guy who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.
In April 1951 a newspaper in North Carolina acknowledged a paper in Illinois when printing the jest: 7
A fanatic has been described as a person who won’t change his mind and can’t change the subject.—Mattoon (Ill.) Journal-Gazette.
The important reference work “Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit” by Kay Halle printed the saying in a section dated 1952. Halle knew Winston Churchill and his son Randolph well and was a “frequent visitor to Chartwell, the Churchill country home in England”. She labeled the quotation “Ear-witness” which meant that a friend shared by Halle and Churchill ascribed the witticism to Churchill: 8 9
W.S.C.: A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.
In February 1952 a Yonkers, New York printed a version with a different wording without attribution: 10
A fanatic is a chap who can’t change his viewpoint and won’t change the subject!
In May 1952 “The Christian Science Monitor” of Boston, Massachusetts ascribed the phrase to Winston Churchill: 11
Says Winston Churchill, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Over here there’s a difference—they call each other Democrats and Republicans.
The text above appeared in other newspaper in 1952 such as the “Rivers Gazette” of Rivers, Manitoba. 12
And a similar quotation and ascription were printed in papers such as “The High Point Enterprise” of High Point, North Carolina which acknowledged another paper: 13
“A fanatic,” says Winston Churchill, “is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” We thought that was a politician.—Rock Hill (S.C.) Herald.
In 1964 the industrious quotation collector Bennett Cerf printed the saying in his syndicated newspaper column, but he presented an oddly different ascription: 14
FANATIC: A man who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject (Ambrose Bierce)
In conclusion, there is evidence that Winston Churchill used this quip around 1952 based on Kay Halle’s book; however, the expression was already in circulation by 1943. Hence, it is unlikely that Churchill coined this joke. The ascription to Churchill was widely reported in newspapers in 1952.
Image notes: Person at sunset by geralt on Pixabay. Winston Churchill with victory sign from Wikimedia Commons; United Kingdom Government public domain.
(Great thanks to Tim Choate whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Barry Popik for his valuable work on this topic.)
Update History: On March 3, 2015 the July 1949 citation was added.
- 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 101, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1945 May 23, Oakland Tribune, Dizzy Daffynitions by Paul H. Gilbert, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1949 July, Reader’s Digest, Volume 55, Definitions with a Difference, Quote Page 126, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1949 August 4, The Attica News, I’d Like to Know by So-An-So, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Attica, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1949 December 13, Seattle Times (Seattle Daily Times), (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1951 February 16, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Volume 51, Number 16, Class Notes for Princeton 00 by Charles F. Zimmerman, Quote Page 23, Column 1, Printed at Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1951 April 27, Robesonian, Other Papers Say, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Lumberton, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1966, Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill’s Wit by Kay Halle, Quote Page 308, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1997 August 24, New York Times, (Obituary with background information) Kay Halle, 93, an Intimate of Century ‘s Giant’s by Robert McG. Thomas Jr., Page 33, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1952 February 9, The Herald Statesman, Colonel Joe Bush Says, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Yonkers, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1952 May 24, Christian Science Monitor, This Spinning Sphere by H.E.T., Quote Page 19, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1952 June 5, Rivers Gazette, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 3, Column 5, Rivers, Manitoba, Canada. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1952 June 14, High Point Enterprise, From Here and There, Quote Page 4, Column 1, High Point, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1964 September 25, Tonawanda News (North Tonawanda Evening News), Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Tonawanda, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩