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.
- 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) ↩