Almost everything most people know about the origin of the phrase “blood, sweat and tears” is wrong.
Some people think Winston Churchill coined it in the famous speech he gave to the British House of Commons on May 13, 1940.
But, in fact, Churchill didn’t coin the phrase. Nor did he say it in that address.
Even though it is often referred to as his “blood, sweat and tears speech,” the phrase he actually used on May 13, 1940 was “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
That’s probably why some books and online posts claim Churchill “never said ‘blood, sweat and tears.’”
But that’s wrong, too.
In fact, Churchill did use the phrase “blood, sweat and tears” in things he said before 1940.
He also approved its use as the title of a book of his speeches published in 1941, which included his May 13, 1940 speech — thus helping to create the confusion about what he actually said that day.
It takes a lot of Googling and reading to figure all this out.
I will save you some time by summarizing what I found after doing a lot of Googling and reading.
Some of the earliest uses of “blood, sweat and tears” are noted by quotation maven Ralph Keyes his excellent book The Quote Verifier, which says:
“A 1611 John Donne poem included the lines ‘That ‘tis in vaine to dew, or mollifie / It with thy Teares, or Sweat, or Bloud.’ More than two centuries later, Byron wrote, ‘Year after year they voted cent per cent / Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions—why?—for rent!’ In his 1888 play Smith, Scottish poet-playwright John Davidson wrote of ‘Blood – sweats and tears, and haggard, homeless lives.’ By 1939, a Lady Tegart reported in a magazine article that Jewish communal colonies in Palestine were ‘built on a foundation of blood, sweat, and tears’.”
Starting in the mid-1800s, the phrase “blood, sweat and tears” came to be used by in descriptions of the trials and tribulations of Jesus Christ.
For example, the lyrics of the 1842 hymn “Christ in the Garden” include the lines:
“So deep was his sorrow, so fervent his prayers,
That down o’er his bosom roll’d blood, sweat, and tears!”
In the decades after that, the phrase became — and remains — common in Christian sermons.
Wikipedia’s “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” entry notes some other early uses, including one by UK poet Lord Alfred Douglas, who wrote in the introduction to a 1919 collection of his poems that poetry “is forged slowly and painfully, link by link, with blood and sweat and tears.”
By 1940, “blood, sweat and tears” and variations of those words had become a common way of describing the concept of extremely hard work needed to overcome challenges or hardships.
The evolution of Winston Churchill’s own uses of those words has been documented in articles by Churchill scholar Richard M. Langworth, posted on the websites of the Churchill Project and the International Churchill Society.
Langworth notes that Churchill used the two-word phrase “blood and tears” in several conversations, books and articles between 1899 and 1940.
Churchill first added sweat to the litany in his World War I memoir, The World Crisis, vol. V, “The Eastern Front,” published in 1931. In the first chapter of that volume, he wrote:
“These pages recount dazzling victories and defeats stoutly made good. They record the toils, perils, sufferings and passions of millions of men. Their sweat, their tears, their blood bedewed the endless plain.”
In 1939, Churchill used the formulation “blood, sweat and tears” in a newspaper opinion piece he wrote about the Spanish Civil War. In that, he said “here are new structures of national life erected upon blood, sweat and tears.”
Finally, on May 13, 1940, Churchill used the version immortalized by his speech to the House of Commons.
A few days before that, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had resigned in disgrace, after an unsuccessful attempt to avoid war with Germany by trying to appease Adolf Hitler with the “Munich Agreement.”
In that agreement, negotiated in September 1930, Chamberlain consented to Hitler’s demand to make the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia part of Germany, not long after Austria had been absorbed into the growing Nazi empire.
Chamberlain caved to Hitler in hopes of staving off a second world war. He apparently believed Hitler’s promise that, in return, Germany would refrain from attempts at further expansion.
On September 30, 1938, Chamberlain made the infamous, deluded claim that the Munich Agreement would ensure “peace for our time” (often misquoted as “peace in our time”).
Winston Churchill didn’t buy it.
He publicly lambasted Chamberlain, saying: “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.”
It soon became clear that Hitler had indeed lied and Churchill was right.
In the fall of 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. Early in 1940, the Nazis overwhelmed Denmark, then invaded and overran Norway.
On May 9, 1940, faced with the failure of his appeasement policy, Neville Chamberlain resigned.
The next day, Winston Churchill was appointed as Prime Minister.
On May 13, Churchill met with his Cabinet. According to the International Churchill Society, one of the things he said to the Cabinet members was: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Later that day, he used the line in his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister.
Some of the lines that came after that line in the speech also became widely quoted, and it’s still stirring to hear the historic recording of Churchill delivering them.
In the closing part of the address, Churchill said, in his inimitable way:
“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, ‘come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.’”
Shortly after Churchill’s May 13, 1940 address, some people were already misquoting or paraphrasing its most famous line.
When publishers used BLOOD SWEAT and TEARS as the title of a collection of his speeches that was announced by press releases in the fall of 1940 and published in 1941, it solidified the mistaken belief that those were the words he had used and his May 13 address.
It also helped ensure that the address would be commonly referred to as Churchill’s “blood, sweat and tears speech.”
Of course, Hitler and the Nazis were eventually defeated, thanks in large part to Churchill’s steadfast leadership.
As he urged, victory against the Nazis was achieved by an unprecedented, united effort by the people of Great Britain with the crucial help of the United States.
And, as Churchill said prophetically in his speech, that victory required a great deal of blood, toil, tears and sweat.
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