Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Currently playing in theaters is the powerful film “Darkest Hour,” in which Gary Oldman portrays the titanic Winston Churchill in 1940. Against all odds, the new prime minister rallied Britain with soaring oratory against the might of Adolf Hitler. As President John F, Kennedy once said, “Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

Churchill evinced both a lisp and a stutter that made him an almost unintelligible figure of ridicule. Yet his mastery of writing and public speaking became his stairway to success. Many believe him to be the greatest orator and hero of the 20th century.

Just before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in June 1953, Churchill attended the Commonwealth Banquet in London. The prime minister, then in his 80th year, was introduced to an 18-year-old exchange student. Churchill advised the young man: “Study history, study history — in history are all the secrets of statecraft.”

That student was my friend James Humes, and he did study history and wrote five books about Winston Churchill. In “The Wit & Wisdom of Winston Churchill,” Humes observes that some of Churchill’s minted creations have become the language of world diplomacy. Churchill was master not only of crafting ringing orations but also of coining words and phrases. By sculpting significance from air, he changed the world by changing the word.

In his first address as prime minister on May 10, 1940, Churchill thundered, “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” This, his most famous coinage, is generally foreshortened to “blood, sweat and tears.” Scarcely a month later he added to English oratory one of its finest hours with the statement “If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.”

The great man also bequeathed us Iron Curtain in his speech at Westminster College, in Fulton, MO, on March 5, 1946. There he told his audience “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” In a World War I speech at the Guildhall in London, Churchill also coined the phrase “business as usual.”

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill asked that areoplane be changed to airplane and hydroplane to seaplane. They have been called such ever since. He also designated the word destroyer for what had been a “light search and destroy vessel.”

Vidkun Quisling was the name of a Norwegian Nazi collaborator. In 1943, Churchill made the man’s name an eponym when he complained about “those vile Quislings in our midst.”

Here’s a sampler of Winston Churchill’s spot-on observations:

alcohol. All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol that alcohol has taken out of me.

appeaser. one who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last.

cigars. Smoking cigars is like falling in love. First you are attracted to its shape. You stay with it for its flavor. And you must always remember never, never let the flame go out.

courage. Going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.
criticism. Eating my words has never given me indigestion.

democracy. the worst form of government except for all other forms that have been tried from time to time.

egotism. Of course I am an egotist. Where do you get if you aren’t?

enemies. You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something sometime in your life.

exercise. I get my exercise by being a pallbearer for those of my friends who believe in regular running and calisthenics.                                                                                               

history. We cannot say “the past is past” without surrendering the future.

medicine. The only way to swallow a bitter mixture is to take it in a single gulp.

old age. The young sow wild oats. The old grow sage.

war. War is horrible, but slavery is worse.

words. Old words are best and old words that are short are best of all.

writing. Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy, an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then a master and then a tyrant.

It may be that Winston Churchill’s most telling aphorism is about life itself: “What is the use of living, if not to strive for nobler causes and to make this world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?”