People, especially politicians, are always saying nasty things about each other. Lately it seems to be our new national sport. What’s dumb about it is that some comments you hear have so obviously been sweated over for hours in a smoke-filled back room that they backfire. When you hear them you laugh at the person who said them instead of their target.
There are a few rare individuals in this world, though, who are able to come out with the perfect response on the spur of the moment, something so fitting and so monumentally funny that you and I go around repeating it decades later. One of those was Winston Churchill, who never played the political barb game, but had a wisdom and a grasp of the language second to none. Churchill could come up with a reply so perfect that he is as much famed for his off-hand quips as he is for being one of the men who saw us through the greatest-ever threat to freedom and liberty.
I have read almost everything Winston Churchill ever wrote, and what impresses me as much as anything is the fact that even in his childhood in the 1870s and 1880s he was as much the Winston Churchill we know as he was during the years of World War II. He was always open and honest, even in his youth, but it sometimes cost him dearly.
I can think of no time that characterizes Winston Churchill better than the day when he arrived at a fashionable English school at the tender age of 7. He found himself confronted by a sour-faced headmaster who pointed out that his education in Latin had been nothing to brag about. The old grouch stuck a book of Latin grammar in Churchill’s hand, pointed to a page, told him to memorize it, and said he’d be back in five minutes.
Churchill opened the book and began perusing the opaque lesson he had been handed, but before he knew it the frowning-faced headmaster was back, rod in hand. It took only a minute for poor Churchill to see that he was in over his head, but true to his nature, instead of just giving up he dared to ask a question about the Latin word Mensa which came — as all Latin words do — in a maze of different kinds and sizes, each more inscrutable than the last, partly because they are spelled the same but have different meanings — Mensa, Mensa, Mensam, Mensae, Mensae, and Mensa (make some sense out of that).
Churchill recited the words, asked what they meant, was told that “Mensa” meant table.
“But why does Mensa also mean O table?” he asked.
“Mensa, O table, is the vocative case.”
“But why O table?”
(Now get this, Johnny.)
“You would use that in addressing a table.”
Utterly amazed, 7-year-old Churchill blurted out, “But I never talk to tables!”
The reply, with a smack of rod in hand, was, “If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and punished let me tell you, very severely.”
Churchill never did well with Latin and Greek, something I can relate to. In one of his later books he points out that he arrived in Parliament with a great advantage over his opponents because he had focused on plain old English, and although it was the humble language of an island people, it served him better than talking to tables, which rarely managed a sensible reply.
Here is an exchange of notes that I suspect was prompted by Churchill’s early experiences. A “priggish civil servant” sent a memorandum back to Churchill, now the Prime Minister, with a note saying he had improperly ended a sentence with a preposition.
Back it went with a note: “This is the sort of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Oh, how I wish I had known that story while I was going through school, Johnny. It might have gotten me in trouble a few times, but it would have been worth it.
Churchill, though he had infinite patience, could really zing someone when he decided he’d had enough. One Socialist member of Parliament, Bessie Braddock, never missed a chance to insult or badger Churchill. It seemed that every time he turned around she was there with some nasty comment.
During one late night session in the House of Commons Churchill accidentally bumped into her. “Mister Churchill!” she said loudly and accusingly, “You are drunk! And what’s more, you are disgustingly drunk.”
Churchill paused and quietly eyed the Socialist MP. “And might I say, Mrs. Braddock, that you are ugly, and disgustingly ugly, but in the morning I shall be sober.”
What would you give to have been the one who said that, Johnny?
Yeah, me too!