What is Churchillian Drift?

I was reminded of “Churchillian Drift” while reading the comments on Aphorisms by Ben Franklin. Churchillian Drift is a precursor to Anatole’s Axiom (scroll down the Corrections & Clarifications page for a short discourse on the subject) devised by British gnomologist Nigel Rees, and explained by him in his piece ‘Policing Word Abuse’: “Long ago, I coined the term ‘Churchillian Drift’ to describe the process whereby the actual originator of a quotation is often elbowed to one side and replaced by someone more famous. So to Churchill or Napoleon would be ascribed what, actually, a lesser-known political figure had said. The process occurs in all fields.” Churchillian Drift bobs up among some of the biggest names in the aphorism business, not just Churchill and Napoleon but Einstein

Not everything that counts can be counted


Be the change you wish to see in the world

and Lincoln

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The thing is, though, you do not find yourself the target of Churchillian Drift unless, like Churchill himself, you are already a damn fine aphorist. Part of the reason it’s so easy to mis-attribute brilliant sayings to great aphorists is that they have already coined so many brilliant sayings themselves. Which is also why, I guess, they might feel occasionally justified in purloining an orphan phrase to make it their own. After all, Franklin may or may not have originated the aphorism

Neither a borrower nor a lender be

but he never said anything against being a plagiarist…

Aphorisms by Anna Kamienska

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the always enlightening ursprache blog as well as the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, sends news of the “aphoristic entries (or ‘entreaties’?)” of Anna Kamienska (1920-1986), from the June 2010 issue of Poetry, translated and introduced by Clare Cavanagh. “Many of [Kamienska’s] aphorisms are infused with grief at the loss of her husband to cancer at an early age,” Jim writes. “And evidently his death prompted her to come to terms with God and renewed her interest in prayer and religious ritual. Some of her aphorisms relate to the struggles involved in writing poetry in the modern world. And a good number are about the shared experience we call life.” From In That Great River: A Notebook by Anna Kamienska, Selected and translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh:

The sunrise observed in a puddle—a great metaphor.

Better if only the young and beautiful would love. But love in those aging aspics, those monstrous, flopping bodies, desire housed in the bodies of cripples, the legless, the blind—that is humanity.

We don’t realize that we live atop a quagmire of cults. Every gesture, understood rightly, has its roots in some sacred archetype. How much of me is that primeval man yearning for heaven, waiting for some sudden opening of the skies and another, true time, in which everything remains and nothing passes?

Art relies on the conversion of even flaws and defects into positive aesthetic values. It is a strange hymn to stupidity.

The curse of man: everything he makes outlives him.

Music teaches us the passing of time. It teaches the value of a moment by giving that moment value. And it passes. It’s not afraid to go.

Father J. tells me about his theory. Every time he has an inner question, it is always answered unexpectedly by someone entering the room, by an overheard conversation.

Collecting pebbles for a new mosaic of a world that I could love.

We create eternity from scraps of time.

We always receive more than we desire. We receive what we ask for, but sometimes in a different currency, a currency that turns out to be of greater worth.

Aphorisms by Ben Franklin

“Ben Franklin Is a Big Fat Idiot” is an entertaining re-appreciation of America’s founding aphorist by Joe Queenan. Queenan rightly points out that Big Fat Ben often purloined his sayings from sages past, and not all of the Great Man’s maxims are equally great. I don’t think this should in any way diminish Franklin’s reputation as one of the aphoristic titans, however. If you read any of the master aphorists, it is always a minority of their sayings that are truly phenomenal. Phenomenal aphorisms are very hard to write, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the truly great sayings are but a subset of the entire aphoristic oeuvre. And in regard to charges of plagiarism, we must remember Anatole’s Axiom, first laid down by French novelist Anatole France:

When a thing has been said, and said well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it.

Franklin did just that, but in copying what had already been said well he added distinctive flourishes and twists that make the recycled sayings truly his own. My favorite Franklinism, and one of my all-time favorite aphorisms, remains:

It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.

xkcd on The Difference between Similes and Metaphors

xkcd is a “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language” and has one of the funniest, and most accurate, takes on the difference between similes and metaphors I’ve ever read. It’s also not too shabby on puns, either. xkcd is “a CNU graduate with a degree in physics. Before starting xkcd, I worked on robots at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. As of June 2007 I live in Massachusetts. In my spare time I climb things, open strange doors, and go to goth clubs dressed as a frat guy so I can stand around and look terribly uncomfortable. At frat parties I do the same thing, but the other way around.” xkcd’s favorite astronomical entity is the Pleiades. Click on the comic to make it larger.