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Turns out my favorite McLuhan quote is actually a Churchill quote

On an architecture tour of Chicago last night, the excellent docent shared a quote from Winston Churchill about buildings:

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.

At first, I guffawed; surely she had mangled and misattributed a similar McLuhan remark (“we shape our tools; thereafter they shape us”). How wrong I was!

As it turns out, not only is the Churchill quote accurate, but McLuhan probably never said the phrase so often attached to his name.

The Churchill quote dates to 1943, and we have its context thanks to a New Yorker report from the time. Via QuoteInvestigator.com,

“We shape our buildings and afterward our buildings shape us,” said Mr. Churchill, addressing Parliament on the subject of plans for rebuilding the bombed-out House of Commons. He had a lot of good reasons for wanting to keep the British legislature just as it used to be—a rectangular chamber instead of a semicircular one, so that the dividing line between Liberal and Conservative could be marked by an aisle a man would think twice before crossing…

1943 November 13, The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town, Quote Page 17, Column 2

McLuhan was working on his first book at the time, The Mechanical Bride. He had not yet been connected to the phrase, and it wasn’t until 1967 that this link was made directly through an article about McLuhan by Father John S. Culkin of Fordham University.

Father Culkin, a friend of McLuhan. While the idea’s quintessence was McLuhan’s, the specific phrasing may have been Culkin’s.

Culkin’s work included both the generic “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us” as well as the specific “We shaped the alphabet and it shaped us.”

Over the coming decades, the Cullin/McLuhan variant and the Churchill variant would continue to be remixed, but there’s no evidence that McLuhan ever 1) said the words himself or 2) claimed authorship of the phrase.

So, thanks, Winston. It’s a good quote, dude!

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