August 29, 2008

by John Mather, M.D.

The Baltimore Sun Sunday November 17,2002, raises the issue as to whether Churchill was a stutterer or simply had a lisp.  The American Stuttering Foundation claims that he was a stutterer and continues to use him as their “pin-up boy” in its advertisements in medical journals, claiming that this is documented in several books.

Fiona Reynoldson’s book Winston Churchill, which seeks to capture the imagination and attention of younger readers comments that, “Churchill came home on leave in 1897 and went to see a doctor in London about his lisp.  He pronounced “s” as “sh”.  Nothing was found to be wrong, but the lisp never went away.  Despite this, he made his first political speech during his leave and later became a great orator in the House of Commons.”

So what is the correct diagnosis: “stuttering” or a “lisp”?

All his life Churchill had an impediment of his speech, not unlike his father’s speech defect, in which he also had difficulty in pronouncing the letter ”s”.  Just before Churchill returned to India in 1897 he consulted Sir Felix Semen, a noted specialist in speech problems, who was also an appointed Physician-in-Ordinary to the Court.  He told Churchill that there was no organic defect and that “practice and perseverance are alone necessary” for him to overcome his impediment.  In his biography, Dr. Semon is said to have commented, “I have just seen the most extraordinary young man I have ever met”.

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Later on Churchill was advised by an American masseuse that his tongue was “restrained by a ligament which nobody else has”.  This he thought provided “the true explanation of my speaking through my nose”.  This was similar to the earlier description that the Boers had put in the advertisement for his capture after escaping prison:  “during long conversations he occasionally makes a rattling noise in his throat”.  When he saw Dr. Semon about cutting the ligament, he refused to do so and Churchill told his mother that he was still tongue “tied”.

Churchill did persevere and worked on his pronunciation rehearsing such phrases as “The Spanish ships I cannot see for they are not in sight”.  This sort ‘exercise’ was intended to cure him of his problem with pronouncing the sibilant “s”.  And so Churchill continued to practice.  He later stated that he would become a great public speaker, after a particularly well-received political speech, saying, “My impediment is no hindrance”.

We know a lot about stuttering although the precise etiology is not known, although thought to be a specific neurological impairment in the brain.  Children, especially boys, aged 2 to 5 may exhibit stutterring that in almost all instances completely recovers.  Reports of Churchill by his family and cousins do not mention stuttering.  Later on Churchill dictated to many ‘secretaries’ and none mention any hesitation (possible stuttering) in his speech but rather a charming lisp.  All secretaries that took dictation, but one, agree that any hesitation was a ‘searching’ for the right words. 

Journalists have commented on many of Churchill’s speeches and have consistently observed a lisp.  Many who have listened to his speeches comment on the varying cadence, and hesitations, that he used to great effect.  This was part of his “stage craft”, a trick of oratory for emphasis and he did practice his orations and speeches to achieve their maximum effect not to mask a stutter.

When listening to his speeches it becomes evident that he did try to avoid wherever it seemed possible words beginning and ending with an ‘s’, and, even when he did use such words, became a charming part of his intonation and oratory.  There is one word he did mutilate, to his great advantage, by talking about the “Narzees” rather than the “Nazis”.

So it was a lisp after all.

Note by the editor, 24 April 2008:

We have received correspondence from a gentleman who insists that despite everything Dr Mather has written above, lisp or no lisp, Churchill also stuttered. He even has a website to this effect. We don’t recommend it! Our correspondent cites such sources as Louis Adamic’s “Dinner at the White House” (1946) and Phyllis Moir’s “I Was Winston Churchill’s Private Secretary” (1941). He ends by writing that the absence of stuttering in Churchill’s broadcasts was “presumably edited out by Allied censors.”

Allied censors? What can the gent be smoking? How did they censor his BBC radio broadcasts that went live all over the world? He seems to have rounded up every spurious source there is to prove a non-fact. Not the first time in Churchill’s case.

For instance, Louis Adamic despised Churchill, and the first edition of his highly unreliable book was actually libelous. Churchill sued and won: one of the few times he sued anybody for the things they said about him. The book was withdrawn and the offending lines removed.

Phyllis Moir spent all of two months on Churchill’s 1932 US lecture tour playing part-time secretary, and managed to parlay this brief experience into a book which contradicts every other secretary who ever wrote or spoke about Churchill’s habits, and not just stuttering. These include: Grace Hamblin, Elizabeth Nel, Elizabeth Gilliatt, Marian Holmes, Patrick Kinna, Lettice Marston, Violet Pearman, Jane Portal, Doreen Pugh, Mary Shearburn, Jo Sturdee, Kathleen Hill. Talked to six of them myself.

He had plenty of faults and problems, but Churchill didn’t stutter. Countless authorities including a dozen or more close associates interviewed by us over the years testify repeatedly that what casual observers thought was a stutter was his habit of groping for words as he spoke or dictated a speech. Every secretary who ever took his dictation (except Moir) agreed.

Churchill turned both his lisp and his word-groping into props, which he used effectively and efficiently, combined with the “loaded pause.” But to call this stuttering is a disservice to people who really do suffer from stuttering. -RML

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