'Short words are best' - Churchill
By R J Askew
ST. ALBANS, Jan 30 - Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill's funeral, the day when the cranes on the River Thames dipped their jibs in regard for a great life lived to the full, as the barge bearing his remains passed through the heart of London.
Churchill, who lived his life through words written and spoken, would doubtless have had something acutely apposite to describe the moment of the moment.
His utterances married simple pragmatism with artful flourishes: 'The essential structure of the ordinary British sentence .. is a noble thing.'
So too, his language mirrored the instinctive activity of his life: 'What if I had said, instead of "We shall fight on the beaches", "Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter"?'
And oh how he plays and mocks and toys with words and meaning: 'Perhaps we have been guilty of some terminological inexactitudes.'
You can hear the voice of this modern Demosthenes in every syllable: 'We shall fight them on the beaches...' Both orators overcame speech impediments.
This quote could be the motto of every natural born editor, struggling to defend THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE against the depredations and insults of barbaric ill-usage: 'This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.'
He wasn't a natural student. Yet he was a natural player at politics and language was his weapon of choice and one he wielded to deadly effect. Perhaps the essence of his linguistic style is captured here: 'Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.'
Imagine the mischievous pleasure he would have had with some of our soul-numbing linguistic infelicities, 'political correctness' for example.
Of course the language he uses is just the medium and the medium is not the message. The message is far more potent with him. When I read this, I immediately think of several current tiger-jockeys: 'Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.'
Yes, he was a self-confessed egotist: 'We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm.' Many hated him, but far more loved him. Yet it was his own nation that plunged the political dagger into him shortly after his greatest triumph on its behalf.
See how he deftly positions himself here in the role of the servant: 'It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion's heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.'
Tigers, lions - and a black dog that loped along behind him all his long life.
Melancholia may have got him down, but it never stopped him having the last word: 'History will say that the right honourable gentleman was wrong. I know it will, because I shall write the history.'
And so today, as the memory of a great word smith flows through the blood of our English language let the jibs be lowered one by one forever and a day.