Winston Churchill? Henry Ward Beecher? Professor Matthews? Elias J. MacEwan?
Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a young Member of Parliament approached Winston Churchill with a copy of an address he was planning to deliver and asked him how he could put more fire into it. Churchill responded:
Put fire into this speech? I suggest you put this speech into the fire.
Would you please explore this anecdote?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that this tale about Churchill is genuine. He died in 1965, and a version of the punchline was attributed to him by 1988.
The humor of the statement under analysis is heightened by the use of antimetabole: a clause is repeated with the key words “fire” and “speech” transposed. The first instance of this antimetabole located by QI was published in a Crown Point, Indiana newspaper in 1879. Extracts from a speech about oration by a person identified as Professor Matthews contained the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
“The man who can’t put fire into his speeches, should put his speeches into the fire.”
“The speaking eye, the apt gesture, the written word, and the sculptured or pointed image are comparatively dead things; it is the voice that has life—the power to thrill, to exalt, to melt, to persuade, and to appal.”
This expression was not identical to the one being explored, but the rhetorical technique was the same. This passage also appeared in other Indiana newspapers in 1879 such as the one in North Manchester. 2
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1884 an agricultural report for the state of Michigan included an article titled “Making a Public Speech” by E. J. MacEwan who emphasized the need to express genuine feelings: 3
Naturalness and simplicity must be accompanied with earnestness, not the stormy bluster of that celebrated preacher who always bawled loudest when he had least to say, but the enthusiasm that comes from a real feeling and genuine interest in the subject and the occasion. “A man who can’t put fire into his speech should put his speech into the fire.”
In 1895 a newspaper in Logan City, Utah printed an address by Professor Elias J. MacEwan which contained an instance of the expression. The MacEwan in 1884 and 1895 are probably the same person: 4
Too many discourses, full of brilliant thought, terse, bright expression, flawless logic, yet lacking beauty, grace and fervor of utterance might with justice be called, “The funeral orations of important matters.”
If a man can’t put fire into his speech he ought to put his speech into the fire.
In 1913 a book about Canadian politics titled “Getting Into Parliament and After” by Sir George W. Ross attributed an instance to a well-known clergyman and speaker: 5
Henry Ward Beecher said: “If you can’t put fire into your speech you should put your speech into the fire.”
In 1928 the “Los Angeles Times” printed a variant of the jest in which a senator complained about the excessive length of a speech: 6
Senator Johnson was asked by a political friend if he thought Al Smith had put enough fire in his speech of acceptance.
“Oh, yes,” laughed Johnson. “The trouble was, he didn’t put enough of his speech in the fire.”
In 1943 the reference “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” included the following definition: 7
poet. One who either puts fire into his verses or his verses into the fire.
In 1949 the 1928 joke continued to circulate with an appearance in “Boys’ Life” magazine: 8
“Do you think the senator put enough fire into his speech?”
“In my opinion he didn’t put enough of his speech into the fire.”
In 1955 the “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes” by Jacob M. Braude included a tale set at a community dinner with a long-winded speaker: 9
“The speaker was all right,” the toastmaster’s wife whispered, “but it seems to me that he didn’t put enough fire into his speech.”
“I feel the opposite way,” answered the toastmaster. “In my opinion he didn’t put enough of his speech into the fire.”
In 1988 “Standing Ovation: How to Be an Effective Speaker and Communicator” by James C. Humes printed an anecdote with Winston Churchill: 10
A young member of Parliament once approached Prime Minister Winston Churchill for some advice on speaking. “Prime Minister, will you look over this draft and tell me how I could put more fire into my speech?” Churchill scanned it briefly and snorted, “Put fire into the speech? My advice to you is to put the speech into the fire!”
In 2002 “The Express” of London attributed the quip to Churchill: 11
HERE is a selection of Winston’s caustic comments from a recently published collection:
Asked, unwisely, by a young MP how he could have put more fire into the speech he had just made, Churchill replied: “What you should have done is put the speech into the fire.”
In 2008 a columnist in “The Daily Mirror” of London employed the joke: 12
PM GORDON BROWN has allegedly told Chancellor Alastair Darling to put some fire in his Budget speech today. I’ve listened to a dozen of them – better advice would be to put the speech in the fire.
In conclusion, this instance of antimetabole was circulating by 1879 when it was employed by Professor Matthews. QI does not know his or her first name. In 1884 the writer Elias J. MacEwan used the expression. During the ensuing decades the phrase evolved into a joke about a lengthy speech. The anecdote about Churchill appeared after his death and is unsupported.
Image Notes: Illustration of person giving a speech from 3dman_eu at Pixabay. Picture showing the combustion of paper from Hans at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe who presented this quip in his book “Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You” which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe’s website about quotations is here.)
- 1879 February 20, The Crown Point Register, Extracts From Prof. Matthews’, “Orator and Orators”, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Crown Point, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1879 February 20, North Manchester Journal, Extracts From Prof. Matthews’ “Orator and Orators”, Quote Page 1, Column 7, North Manchester, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1884, Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Secretary of the State Board of Agriculture of the State of Michigan from Oct 1, 1883 to Sept 30, 1884, Making a Public Speech by E. J. MacEwan (Read at the Institutes held at Paw Paw and Plymouth), Start Page 237, Quote Page 247, W. S. George & Co., State Printers and Binders, Lansing, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1895 November 16, The Journal (The Tri-Weekly Journal), Public Speaking: An Address by Professor Elias J. Mac Ewan, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Logan City, Utah. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1913, Getting Into Parliament and After by Sir George W. Ross (George William Ross), Chapter 29: The Political Platform, Quote Page 260, William Briggs, Toronto, Canada. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1928 September 23, Los Angeles Times, Section: Sunday Magazine, Good Short Stories Compiled for the Times Sunday Magazine, Quote Page 22, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 213, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1949 January, Boys’ Life, Thank and Grin, Quote Page 34, Column 3, Published by Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1955, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes by Jacob M. Braude, Topic: Public Speaking, Quote Page 316, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper in third Printing of May 1956) ↩
- 1988 Copyright, Standing Ovation: How to Be an Effective Speaker and Communicator by James C. Humes, Chapter 2: The Churchill Formula, Quote Page 9, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 2002 July 6, The Express, Article: From Winston to his darling Clementine, Author/Byline: Paul Callan, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2008 March 12, The Daily Mirror, Article: RESULT! In the mood for a quickie, Darling? So cut the cackle – and let’s get it on, Author/Byline: Derek McGovern, Section: Sport, Quote Page 60, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩