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Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Who never said it?

"Whoever is not a socialist when he is 20 has no heart; whoever is not a conservative when he is 30 has no brain."

Everyone has heard that comment which is supposed to be something said by Winston Churchill. And if you look puzzled because you have no idea who Churchill was, you're a recent graduate of academia. But it turn out that there is no evidence that Churchill never said it.

There are lots of things that are attributed to famous men that they never said, but the attribution is an appeal to authority. If Churchill said it, or Jefferson or Washington it must be profound, right? Well, no.
The Wrongly Attributed Statement is a phenomenon I've experienced all too often. I first encountered it in 2000, when I was writing an article for the magazine Lingua Franca and trying to find the source for Churchill's quip, "Whoever is not a socialist when he is 20 has no heart; whoever is not a conservative when he is 30 has no brain." But every citation I found led me only to another citation. A would cite B. I'd follow up with B only to discover that B cited C, which cited D, which cited A. Books of quotations referred to other books of quotations. I posted queries online, but scholars either didn't know or claimed that someone else had said it. (Briand and Clemenceau were favorite candidates, but when I pursued them, I found myself tumbling down the same rabbit hole of citations.) Finally, in frustration, I called the editor of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations; I think it was Justin Kaplan. He said it couldn't have been Churchill. And that was enough for me. What choice did I have?

The WAS is not just a thing, you see, it's an experience. A quote floats in your head for years, resting in cloistered obscurity. One day you decide to use it in a book or an article. You look it up to get the exact wording and to cite the original source. But you find multiple wordings and no credible source. You keep looking, only to find that no one ever said it (at least not that anyone knows of). You keep looking, if for no other reason than to redeem the time you've already wasted. If you're lucky, you'll finally find someone—often someone you've never heard of—saying it. More often you find that no one said it at all.

Read the whole thing.

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