After seeing some excruciatingly obtuse jargon on Twitter today [1,2], I was reminded of Winston Churchill and his lifelong love of words, as well as being a fount of delicious anecdotes and epigrams. There is a story that an American general once asked Churchill to look over the draft of an address he had written. It was returned with the comment: “Too many passives and too many zeds“. The general asked him what he meant, and was told:
Too many Latinate polysyllabics like “systematize”, “prioritize” and “finalize”. And then the passives. What if I had said, instead of “We shall fight on the beaches”, “Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter”?
(aside: this is of particular relevance, as many scientists (myself included!) are guilty of using unnecessarily baffling terminology and phrasing when writing papers; I highly recommend a presentation by Simon Peyton Jones from Microsoft Research Cambridge on How to write a good research paper)
Churchill’s ability with words was not only employed in his speeches, but also in his impish (indeed, often childish) sense of humour. He could not resist making a quip — to the extent that over the years many witty remarks whose provenance is in fact far from certain have been ascribed to him. A further example that I have always appreciated is given in one of the many documents that came across Churchill’s desk; a civil servant has gone out of his way to be grammatically correct, and had clumsily avoided ending a sentence with a preposition. Churchill scribbled in the margin: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
Churchill was also the progenitor of the delightful phrase terminological inexactitude, used as a euphemism meaning a lie or untruth (referring to the government’s denials in 1906 of the exploitation of Chinese labour in South Africa).
(many of these quotes have been taken from the excellent The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill, compiled by Dominique Enright)