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Mind your language

The rhetorical power of ‘never’, from Ian Paisley to King Lear

...via Winston Churchill and Peter Pan

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

He won’t be remembered as Lord Bannside, but Ian Paisley will be remembered for shouting: ‘Never, never, never, never.’ The fourth never was hardly a shout, by his standards, but merged into the roar of the crowd.

Never is a useful word for rhetoric. In our mind’s ear we remember how Churchill stressed the word and paused as he said: ‘Never in the field of human conflict.’ That auditory memory is something of an illusion, for Churchill made his great speech about the ‘Few’ in the Commons, in 1940, and proceedings were not recorded in sound. What we have heard is the version he delivered again for a recording in 1951.


If Paisley managed four nevers, Lear outdid him in that moving line: ‘O, thou wilt come no more. / Never, never, never, never, never.’ Or, rather, that is what the First Folio has. The separately published quarto edition of King Lear, from 1608, makes it only: ‘Never, never, never.’ A modern actor can scarcely do with less than five, or the audience will still expect more.

Churchill knew of the rhetorical power of never from a speech made by Chatham in 1777. ‘If I were an American, as I am an Englishman,’ he told the Lords, ‘while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms — never — never — never.’ At Yalta in 1945, Roosevelt was said to have been puzzled by an angry response by Churchill to a proposal he thought threatened the British Empire. ‘Never, never, never,’ Churchill growled. We know he was aware of Chatham’s words because he quoted them in a draft of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples written in 1939.

A single repetition of never need not be so dramatic. People still speak of getting furniture on the never-never, meaning ‘on credit’, although I’m less sure that the century or more of hire-purchase is still the system legally in force. It is strange, though, that this colloquialism, never-never, originated in Australia, where Never Never was used, from the 1830s, for the remote outback. Perhaps this usage influenced J.M. Barrie’s Neverland, although, in an early draft of Peter Pan, he called it ‘Peter’s Never Never Never Land’, which takes us back to Lear again.


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