Friday, 26 April 2013

Bel Esprit

Prime Minister, British, United Kingdom, Wit, Bel Esprit,


Noun phrase. Plural beaux esprits. Middle 17th century.
[French = fine mind]

A brilliant or witty person.

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (1874-1965), wartime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was a veritable bel esprit. Although most noted as a politician, Churchill was also a soldier, an artist, a historian and a prolific writer, writing over 40 books in his lifetime and being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. Despite suffering from a speech impediment and bouts of severe depression, Churchill became the embodiment of dogged resistance in the face of fascist aggression and through his charisma and force of personality successfully galvanised the spirits of the beleaguered British people during 'their darkest hour(as if this weren't enough for any mortal bel esprit, he also found time to be an amateur bricklayer and butterfly breeder).

If it's wit, however, that truly defines the bel esprit, then Churchill is certainly well qualified. His voluminous repertoire of quips, retorts and ripostes is legendary, and his scathing verbal dexterity is second only to his inspiring leadership in renown. In fact, many a once distinguished personage has been relegated in the history books to little more than somebody that was once foolhardy enough to lock verbal horns in a bout of ill-advised repartee. While it's doubtless that some of the quotes attributed to Churchill are apocryphal, I shall leave you with a selection of some of the best known:

Lady Astor MP:                        If I were married to you, I'd put poison in your coffee.

Churchhill:                                If I were married to you, I'd drink it.

- - -

G. B. Shaw (playwright):           Have reserved two tickets for opening night. Bring a friend, if you have one.

Churchill:                                 Impossible to come to first night. Will come to second night, if you have one.

- - -

Bessie Braddock:                     You are disgustingly drunk!

Churchill:                                 And you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I'll be sober, and you'll still be disgustingly ugly.

Do you have a favourite bel esprit?  Do you aspire to be a bel esprit?
Please feel free to leave your comments below (though if you're commenting on your own aspirations, they had better be damn witty).


  1. A few years ago, an English visitor to my parents' home paused to scoff at an American edition of a book (I think it was The Gathering Storm) which displayed the author's name as Winston S. Churchill. "Why the S?" he asked incredulously.

    I felt compelled to point out that we had a Winston Churchill too, and ours was famous first. As Wikipedia notes,

    "The British Churchill, upon becoming aware of the American Churchill's books, wrote to him suggesting that he would sign his own works "Winston S. Churchill", using his middle name (actually part of his full surname, "Spencer-Churchill") to differentiate them. This suggestion was accepted, with the comment that the American Churchill would have done the same, had he any middle names."

    A fine example of Anglo-American cooperation - bel esprit de corps if you will.

    1. That's a jolly fine show from both chaps indeed!

      You have to wonder, as the American Winston Churchill was so successful in his time, would he be better remembered to posterity if he had a different name? I don't know about the US, but in Britain no one would ever ask 'Which Winston Churchill are you talking about?' If that's true (and I don't know if it is), it's rather sad.

    2. Oh, the American one is almost totally unknown over here too, even with that name.

      Fame is a fickle mistress.