Winston Churchill? Readers Digest? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: British leader Winston Churchill has been credited with a crafting a vivid definition for “appeaser” that cleverly employed figurative language:
An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile — hoping it will eat him last.
It supposedly was spoken during World War II, but I have not been able to find a contemporaneous citation. Would you please examine the quotation?
Quote Investigator: Winston Churchill did use the crocodile metaphor during a speech delivered on January 20, 1940, but the phrasing was different. At the time, Churchill was the First Lord of the British Admiralty, and his address was broadcast on BBC radio from London; “The New York Times” printed the speech the next day. In the following passage Churchill was discussing countries which had remained neutral during the ongoing war. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear greatly that the storm will not pass. It will rage and it will roar ever more loudly, ever more widely.
The passage did not use the word “appeaser”. Also, it was somewhat clumsy because it employed two figurative frameworks: one based on a ravenous crocodile and another based on a powerful storm. The popular modern version mentioned by the questioner was circulating by 1954. This version simplified the text by adding the word “appeaser” and using only one metaphor.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Parts of Churchill’s speech were reprinted in multiple newspapers and magazines in 1940. For example, “Time” magazine included the crocodile statement. 2
Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured.
In 1954 the mass-circulation “Reader’s Digest” printed an instance with the word “appeaser”. The memorable saying was placed into a compilation called “Best Quotes of ’54 ’55 ’56”: 3
“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile—hoping it will eat him last.”
Sir Winston Churchill, Reader’s Digest, December 1954.
QI does not know who constructed this variant. Churchill lived until 1965, and it was conceivable that he reformulated his earlier remark. Alternatively, the statement evolved from the 1940 statement, and the modifiers were anonymous.
In conclusion, Churchill did construct a notably colorful expression with a crocodile when discussing neutral countries in 1940. His statement was altered to yield an arguably improved instance by 1954. Nevertheless, to achieve full accuracy one should cite and use the version from 1940.
Image Notes: Picture of Cuban Crocodile released into the public domain by Ltshears. Portrait of Winston Churchill from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Both images were accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have ben cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person who asked about this saying and several other quotations ascribed to Churchill.)
- 1940 January 21, New York Times, Text of Churchill’s Speech on War Prospects, Quote Page 30, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1940 January 29, Time, Volume 35 Issue 5, Invitation to War, Quote Page 27, Time Inc., New York. (EBSCO Academic Search Premier) ↩
- 1957, Best Quotes of ’54 ’55 ’56, Compiled by James Beasley Simpson, Section: Definitions, Quote Page 28, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩