Nigel Rees? Stephen Fry? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: This website contains numerous examples of quotations that have been reassigned from anonymous or forgotten individuals to famous figures. The general phenomenon has been designated “Churchillian Drift” because of the large number of sayings that have been incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill. Would you please explore the origin of this term?
Quote Investigator: Nigel Rees is an English quotation expert who has authored numerous valuable reference works. He has also served as the host of a long-running BBC panel game about quotations.
He publishes a newsletter called “The ‘Quote…Unquote’ Newsletter”. In the April 1993 issue he penned a comically exaggerated remark about George Bernard Shaw: 1
Hence, Rees’s First Law of Quotation: ‘When in doubt, ascribe all quotations to George Bernard Shaw.’ The law’s first qualification is: ‘Except when they obviously derive from Shakespeare, the Bible or Kipling.’ The corollary is: ‘In time, all humorous remarks will be ascribed to Shaw whether he said them or not.’
Rees noted that Winston Churchill was another powerfully magnetic figure in the world of quotations. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:
People are notoriously lax about quoting and attributing marks correctly, as witness an analogous process I shall call Churchillian Drift. The Drift is almost indistinguishable from the First Law, but there is a subtle difference. Whereas quotations with an apothegmatic feel are normally ascribed to Shaw, those with a more grandiose or belligerent tone are almost automatically credited to Churchill.
Rees listed five big names that the popular mind had settled upon as the most likely source of quotable wit: George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.
QI observes that the wits, sages, heroes, villains, stars, and lovers of one era tend to displace some of the leading figures of previous eras. Thus, the list of magnetic figures in the quotation domain changes over time.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- The Quote Unquote Newsletter 1992-1996, Issue: April 1993, Volume 2, Number 2, Edited by Nigel Rees, Article: The Vagueness Is All, Newsletter Published and distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: www.quote-unquote.org.uk (Compilation 1992-1996 available as Kindle ebook) ↩