One of the most annoying things about the modern age of information technology is that the things one thinks one knows, so often turn out not to be quite right.
Whilst writing a piece on this blog about Sir Terry Pratchett, I began thinking about things I have read or heard said by Americans which seemed plain silly to me. A theme began growing up in my mind and I thought well I could start the piece with the quote of Churchill’s, ‘England and America two countries separated by a common language.’ Now I remember exactly when I heard this for the first time, July 21st 1969, the day after Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon and famously said ‘that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’. On the morning after, I distinctly remember my father saying ‘that’s Americans for you, can’t get simple grammar right,’ my mother interjected that perhaps ‘he hadn’t heard it right,’ and, ‘what did it matter anyway?’ This was to no avail, as dad was off on one,
“The most watched event in human history and he forgets the ‘a’, ‘one small step for ‘A’ man‘, how hard is that, I ask you.”
This of course was the era when a working class British man felt he had a god given right to have a rant about something every now and then.
One thing I distinctly remember him saying was, “as Winston Churchill said, ‘two countries separated by a common language’.”
Now when I write, I try to make an effort to get things right, so thinking to myself Churchill might have quoted someone earlier, I thought I would just check it before posting anything that might make me seem silly. So Google I did, and what did I find, that the earliest attribution to Churchill was in The Times, 26 January 1987.
Now this was irritating.
I searched a bit more and found claims attributing the quote to George Bernard Shaw, Yippee I thought. But it was not to be, it turns out that lots of people attribute it to him, but no-one says where he said it, so he might not have.
So more searching
Next up was Oscar Wilde, if Shaw didn’t say it, than Oscar surely must have, well nearly but not quite. In the The Canterville Ghost (1887) there is the line “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” which is close but no cigar.
So More Searching.
Bertrand Russell was the next candidate, in “Can Americans and Britons Be Friends?”, Saturday Evening Post, 3 June 1944: “It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language. A Frenchman in America is not expected to talk like an American, but an Englishman speaking his mother tongue is thought to be affected and giving himself airs. Or else he is taken for a German or a Dutchman, and is complemented on his grammatical mastery of the language of another nation.“
At which point I was too irritated to continue.
Now the universe has absolutely no right to operate in this way, I don’t mind my dad not being infallible, turning out to be only human is a part of a parents job description, but the universe should not play silly beggars. Famous quotes should not just spring out of the ether unbidden, without a famous person to have said them. I’d write to my MP except that it would probably give him an excuse to put something else on his expenses. I wouldn’t write to The Times since they got it so wrong.
This is simply not fair, and when I find out what is causing it I am going to put a stop to it.