Tag Archives: Winston Churchill

Long Enough to Cover the Subject and Short Enough to Create Interest

Winston Churchill? Ronald Knox? Gerald K. Rudulph? Richard N. Elliott? Louis Sobol? Frances Langford? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous statesman and orator Winston Churchill was asked about the length of an ideal address, and he supposedly said:

A speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.

Yet, a similar remark about sermons is often attributed to the theologian Ronald Knox. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This quip is difficult to trace because it has many variants, and the phrasing is highly variable. The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in May 1920 in “The Buffalo Enquirer” of Buffalo, New York. The columnist Gerald K. Rudulph employed quotation marks to indicate that the joke was already in circulation. This version highlighted a column instead of a speech or a sermon. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . we will do our best and try to make this column like a woman’s skirt, “short enough to be attractive, but long enough to cover the subject.”

An instance was attributed to Churchill by 1942; hence, he probably used it after it had been coined. Pertinent citations are presented further below. QI has been unable to find substantive evidence that Ronald Knox used the expression.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1920 May 21, The Buffalo Enquirer, The Port Side Column by Gerald K. Rudulph, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)

A Diplomat Is a Person Who Can Tell You To Go To Hell in Such a Tactful Way That You’ll Look Forward with Pleasure To Making the Trip

Winston Churchill? Caskie Stinnett? Gary Knafelc? Vince Lombardi? Viola Layne? Earl Wilson? Joe Williams? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Diplomacy is a difficult profession that rewards sensitivity and great verbal dexterity. The following witticism has been credited to travel writer and humorist Caskie Stinnett:

A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.

The following similar remarks have been attributed to Winston Churchill:

  • Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.
  • Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.

What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Winston Churchill employed this joke. He received credit by the 2000s. Caskie Stinnett did use this gag in his book “Out of the Red” in 1960, but it was already in circulation.

The earliest instance located by QI appeared as an anonymous filler item in the “St. Louis Star-Times” of Missouri in November 1937. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a tactful way that you’ll look forward with pleasure to making the trip.

The phrasing is variable which makes the expression difficult to trace. Thus, earlier evidence may be discovered by future researchers. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1937 November 27, St. Louis Star-Times, (Filler item), Quote Page 10, Column 1, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)

Plans Are Worthless, But Planning Is Everything

Dwight D. Eisenhower? Winston Churchill? Richard M. Nixon? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The World War II leader and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower apparently made a paradoxical statement about preparation. Here are two versions:

1) Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
2) Plans are worthless, but planning is essential.

Would you please explore the origin of this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1950 Dwight Eisenhower wrote a letter to a U.S. diplomat in which he ascribed a military-oriented version of the saying to an anonymous soldier. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . I always remember the observation of a very successful soldier who said, “Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.”

During a speech in November 1957 Eisenhower employed the saying again. He told an anecdote about the maps used during U.S. military training. Maps of the Alsace-Lorraine area of Europe were used during instruction before World War I, but educational reformers decided that the location was not relevant to American forces. So the maps were switched to a new location within the U.S. for planning exercises. A few years later the military was deployed and fighting in the Alsace-Lorraine: 2

I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

The details of a plan which was designed years in advance are often incorrect, but the planning process demands the thorough exploration of options and contingences. The knowledge gained during this probing is crucial to the selection of appropriate actions as future events unfold.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1984, The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, Volume XI: Columbia University, Editor Louis Galambos et al, Letter from: Dwight Eisenhower, Letter to: Hamilton Fish Armstrong, Date: December 31, 1950, Start Page 1516, Quote Page 1516, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland. (Verified with hard copy)
  2. 1958, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957, Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, Remarks at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference, Date: November 14, 1957, Start Page 817, Quote Page 818, Published by the Federal Register Division, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Why Make the Rubble Bounce?

Winston Churchill? James Reston? Edward M. Kennedy? Clark M. Clifford? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The massive arsenals of the nuclear nations have been poised like the Sword of Damocles to fall upon the head of mankind for decades. Statesman Winston Churchill reportedly was critical of excessive weaponry and said:

If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.

I haven’t been able to find a citation. Is this quotation accurate?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent citation located by QI appeared in Winston Churchill’s volume about the Second World War titled “Their Finest Hour” published in 1949. London suffered from extensive bombardment, and Churchill suggested that eventually the war planners behind the devastation would recognize the ineffectiveness of further attacks upon the city. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Indeed, at this time we saw no end but the demolition of the whole metropolis. Still, as I pointed out to the House of Commons at the time, the law of diminishing returns operates in the case of the demolition of large cities. Soon many of the bombs would only fall upon houses already ruined and only make the rubble jump. Over large areas there would be nothing more to burn or destroy, and yet human beings might make their homes here and there, and carry on their work with infinite resource and fortitude.

Churchill was discussing conventional weaponry used against London and not nuclear bombs. Also, he used the phase “only make the rubble jump” without the word “bounce”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1949, The Second World War: Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill, Quote Page 372, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)

He Is a Modest Man Who Has a Great Deal To Be Modest About

Winston Churchill? Voltaire? Julian Amery? Ronald Reagan? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a political rival of Winston Churchill was once praised with the description “He is a modest man.” Churchill responded with the quip “He has much to be modest about.” Would you please investigate this tale?

Quote Investigator: Clement Attlee became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in July 1945. In December 1945 “The New York Times” printed a group of anecdotes that were circulating in newspapers and diplomatic circles in London. One tale was about Attlee. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Although some quarters contend that the Labor Government has gone too far too fast in instituting reforms, a considerable bloc of Prime Minister Attlee’s supporters is frankly disappointed. That explains this observation, now making the rounds: “Attlee is a modest man who has a great deal to be modest about.”

The originator of the barb was unidentified although the prefatory words suggested that the critic wished to see more reforms from Attlee’s administration whereas Churchill opposed those reforms. The phrasing of the remark has been variable, and an instance was ascribed to Churchill by April 1947 in a Canadian newspaper.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1945 December 9, The New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, What London Is Laughing At, Quote Page 21, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)

Put Fire Into This Speech? You Should Put This Speech Into the Fire

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. Continue reading


  1. 1879 February 20, The Crown Point Register, Extracts From Prof. Matthews’, “Orator and Orators”, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Crown Point, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1879 February 20, North Manchester Journal, Extracts From Prof. Matthews’ “Orator and Orators”, Quote Page 1, Column 7, North Manchester, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)

A Pessimist Sees the Difficulty in Every Opportunity; an Optimist Sees the Opportunity in Every Difficulty

Winston Churchill? Bertram Carr? F. W. Cole? John D. Rockefeller? L. P. Jacks? Helen Keller? Anonymous?

Dear Quote investigator: Here are four versions of a popular saying about differing mental attitudes:

  1. The pessimist sees an obstacle in every opportunity; the optimist sees an opportunity in every obstacle.
  2. An optimist finds an opportunity in every difficulty; a pessimist finds a difficulty in every opportunity
  3. A pessimist is one who sees a disaster in every opportunity. An optimist sees opportunity in every disaster.
  4. An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.

The statesman Winston Churchill is typically credited with this remark, but I have been unable to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Churchill made this statement. The historian Richard M. Langworth placed the saying in an appendix titled “Red Herrings: False Attributions” in his book “Churchill By Himself” which is the most comprehensive collection of Churchill quotations. 1

The earliest strong match located by QI was spoken in 1919 by Bertram Carr who was the Mayor of Carlisle, England. He was addressing “The Fifty-First Annual Co-operative Congress”, a gathering inspired by social reformers and the cooperative movement. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

The past history of an old walled city such as this leaves its legacy of ideas antiquated and out of date. These, as expressed in tangible form, are an embarrassment, and hinder the wheels of progress, but we view these, I hope, in the spirit of the optimist to whom every difficulty is an opportunity, and not as the pessimist, to whom every opportunity presents some difficulty.

The ascription to Carr is tentative because the saying may have already been circulating. Fragments appeared earlier, and the full statement was probably assembled from these pieces over time.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 2013 December 12 (Kindle Edition Date), Churchill By Himself (Winston Churchill’s In His Own Words Collection), Compiled and edited by Richard M. Langworth, Appendix I: Red Herrings: False Attributions, Entry: Pessimist and optimist. (Kindle Location 19806)
  2. 1919, The Fifty-First Annual Co-operative Congress, Held at the Market Hall, Carlisle, England, On 9th, 10th, and 11th June, 1919, The Congress Luncheon, Start Page 61, Quote Page 64, Published by the Co-operative Union Limited, Holyoake House, Hanover Street, Manchester, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link

An Empty Taxi Arrived and Clement Attlee Stepped Out of It

Winston Churchill? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Critics of U.K. Prime Minister Clement Attlee viewed him as an insubstantial and dull figure. The following quip apparently circulated during the 1940s:

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street and Clement Attlee got out of it.

These words are often attributed to Winston Churchill. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Winston Churchill strongly denied that he employed this quip. See the citation further below. The anonymous barb was aimed at Attlee by 1948 as recorded by the widely-syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The Upper Classes are at the government because the inheritance tax laws prevent them from shooting pheasants, so they have retaliated with this joke: An empty taxi pulled up in front of Number Ten Downing Street and Mr. Attlee got out.

This joke template has a very long history. In 1879 the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt who was notably thin was the subject of the following: 2

. . . only yesterday, says a correspondent, you may read in the same paper a fragment of conversation as follows: “An empty carriage stops and who is it who steps out? Sarah Bernhardt.”

In 1882 a similar remark was aimed at Alexander H. Stephens who was a U.S. Senator for the State of Georgia. Stephens was short and slight: 3

. . . the late Senator Carpenter’s description of Stephens. He said: “An empty coach rolled up in front of one of the Departments and Alexander H. Stephens alighted from it.”

A separate article focused on these nineteenth century jokes is available here. This article continues with additional selected citations from the twentieth century in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 1948 February 23, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Lyons Den by Frederic Wakeman (substituting for Leonard Lyons), Quote Page 26, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers.com)
  2. 1879 May 31, Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, Table Talk, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1882 August 12, Daily State Gazette (Green Bay Press-Gazette), (Untitled short item), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)

The Young Sow Wild Oats. The Old Grow Sage

Winston Churchill? Stephen Fry? Henry James Byron? W. Davenport Adams? Aubrey Stewart? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The recent memoir by English comedian and actor Stephen Fry contains the following intriguing remark: 1

‘Young men sow wild oats, old men grow sage,’ Churchill is reputed to have said. It almost never is Churchill. In fact collectors of quotations call such laziness in attribution ‘Churchillian creep’.

Was this wordplay created by Winston Churchill?

Quote Investigator: There is some evidence that Churchill employed this quip on his 77th birthday, but it was circulating before he was born.

The earliest appearance located by QI was in a play titled “The Pilgrim of Love! A Fairy Romance” by Henry James Byron which was first performed in 1860. In the following passage a character was afraid that he was losing control of a young person he was responsible for mentoring. Emphasis added by QI: 2

I’m getting on, and so, as his majority
Approaches, I observe that my authority
Declines—but youth, we know, will have its fling,
And there’s a period for everything.
This gardener’s rule applies to youth and age,
When young sow wild oats, but when old grow sage.

Regarding Stephen Fry’s phrase ‘Churchillian creep’, it was probably inspired by the term ‘Churchillian drift’ coined by top quotation researcher Nigel Rees. 3

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 2015 (Copyright 2014), More Fool Me: A Memoir by Stephen Fry, Chapter: The Early Days, Section: Waiting for My Man, The Overlook Press: Peter Mayer Publishers, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  2. Date: First Performed at the Theatre Royal Haymarker (under the management of Mr. Buckstone), on Easter Monday, April 9th, 1860, Title: The Pilgrim of Love! A Fairy Romance, in One Act, Author: Henry James Byron, Scene: 1, Character Speaking: Ebben Bonannen, Start Page 5, Quote Page 6, Publisher: Thomas Hailes Lacy, London (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 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 link (Compilation 1992-1996 available as Kindle ebook)

Sure, We’ll Have Fascism in This Country, and We’ll Call It Anti-Fascism

Huey Long? Winston Churchill? Bruce Bliven? H. L. Mencken? Jimmy Street? Robert Cantwell? Lawrence Dennis?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous populist Huey Long and British leader Winston Churchill have both been credited with a bold prediction about political deception. Here are two versions:

  • When the United States gets fascism, it will call it anti-fascism.
  • The fascists of the future will be called anti-fascists.

Would you please investigate?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to Winston Churchill.

Huey Long died on September 10, 1935. The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in an article with the byline “J. F. McD.” published on February 22, 1936 in “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Cincinnati, Ohio. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Norman Thomas said recently in a speech made in Cincinnati “Fascism is coming in the United States most probably, but it will not come under that name.” In this statement he was repeating the words of the late Huey Long, but Huey added: “Of course we’ll have it. We’ll have it under the guise of anti-fascism.”

The ascription to Long is popular but the phrasing has been highly-variable, Also, QI has not yet found direct instances in Long’s writings, speeches, or interviews. This article presents a snapshot of current incomplete knowledge.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 1936 February 22, The Cincinnati Enquirer, A “Lively Age” To Come? by J. F. McD., (Book Review of “In the second Year” by Storm Jameson), Quote Page 7, Column 1, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers.com)