I'm looking for a single verb, or at least a succinct way of saying that you are slightly, but intentionally, modifying a famous phrase.

For example, if I were to refer to Alexander the Great's campaigns as "blood, sweat and spears", this would be a pun on the titular phrase from Winston Churchill's "blood, sweat and tears" speech. Could I, in one word, say: "To _____ Churchill, we are about to see 'blood, sweat and spears'"?


There are some excellent suggestions for the case where the modification is meant to be witty or funny. However, there should be some options for a more sombre use as follows:

"To _____ Churchill, due to the difference in public spending, an iron curtain is being drawn across this country".

I should clarify that a further meaning I wish to convey with the chosen word is that I am in no way attempting to falsify, criticise or contest the original saying. Quite the opposite, I am taking a respected saying and altering it for humour or emphasis. Please bear in mind that the above two examples are purely rhetorical; I'm not writing a comedy sketch or biography.

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    For my money, the similarity between 'spears' and 'tears' is far too weak for it to qualify as a pun, what you are doing is evoking the Churchillian phrase.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 9:19
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    Thanks, 'evoke' actually sounds very reasonable. I gave the sentence purely as an example, however. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 9:35
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    I immediately thought of "With apologies to Churchill..." (though Phil Sweet beat me to it), but OP is looking for one word. I don't think there is any one word that has the same sense of 'jocular paraphrase'. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:17
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    If you were removing potentially objectionable language from the altered quote, bowdeleriize might work. Merriam-Webster gives two meanings for the verb, one specific and one more general: "1 literature : to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar {bowdlerize the text} 2 : to modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content." So, for example, you might say, "To bowdlerize N.W.A., 'To heck with tha police!'"
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 5:23
  • 2
    I'm tempted to suggest 'mangle' or 'butcher', although those may not make the intentionality obvious.
    – trikeprof
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 21:07

16 Answers 16


You say you are looking for 'way of saying that you are slightly, but intentionally, modifying a famous phrase'. Breaking that down, it seems that the modification would be obvious, leaving the need to clarify that it has been made deliberately and not through ignorance.

If this is correct, I would suggest that 'Evoke' would work in your sample sentence

Bring or recall (a feeling, memory, or image) to the conscious mind. ‘the sight evoked pleasant memories of his childhood’


"To evoke Churchill, we are about to see 'blood, sweat and spears'"

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    @Valentin Aslanyan, If you are being witty, then "To riff on Churchill, we are about to see blood, sweat and spears.'" seems better to me than the more neutral verb, evoke.
    – user227547
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:59
  • 13
    Evoke barely makes sense in this context. It certainly doesn't suggest an intentional misquote or play on words. A listener might subjectively feel like a speaker's style, speech, or delivery evokes Churchill. For a speaker to say they are evoking Churchill sounds presumptuous. At best, they might invoke him.
    – erickson
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 14:11
  • @erickson I did consider the pros and cons of evoke, versus invoke, but decided I was comfortable that evoke was closer to my understanding of the question. grammarist.com/usage/evoke-invoke But on the whole I think PhilSweet's answer is a better one than mine.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 14:42
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    Meta question: I would like to outline why I accepted this as an answer despite popular opinion; am I allowed to make a summary at the end of the original post or do I have to use a comment like this one? It may be difficult due to the character limit and lack of formatting. Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 15:04
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    @ValentinAslanyan I would simply state here in the comments why you think this is the best answer. Though note that you may be inviting disagreement. Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 18:29

I think you may use paraphrase:

  • to repeat something written or spoken using different words, often in a humorous form or in a simpler and shorter form that makes the original meaning clearer.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

  • To paraphrase Churchill , we are about to to see "blood, sweat and spears".
  • 29
    My first thought was exactly that - to use paraphrase. Of course, then I read a dictionary definition such as the one you provided, realising that technically it would be a misuse of the word. I am not "making the original clearer", but rather changing the meaning to something else, while keeping the framework of a well-known quote for the sake of its notoriety. My second thought was to intentionally misuse the word "paraphrase", which I may also end up doing. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 11:04
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    Paraphrase is a good choice; rephrase is another. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 12:08
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    I would find this usage acceptable in extemporaneous speech, but not in formal writing or speech where precision is important.
    – 1006a
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 15:05
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    @ValentinAslanyan I am not sure why Cambridge says that paraphrase "makes the original clearer". The word is greek and its meaning in greek does not imply that at all. It only implies alteration.
    – Ma0
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 8:57
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    @ValentinAslanyan "A restatement of a text in different words, often to clarify meaning." I.e. clarifying meaning is not implicit and does not have to be the intention. The use of the term 'paraphrase' when potentially misquoting someone is considered by many to be idiomatic.
    – Pharap
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 11:21

Is 'Misquote' not an acceptable answer?

Misquote - quote (a person or a piece of written or spoken text) inaccurately.

  • 18
    @ValentinAslanyan I could still see this being used, in a humorous way, "...as we finish this brewing convention, just remember, to misquote FDR, there is nothing to fear but beer itself."
    – BradC
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:55
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    @Valentin "misquote" is perfectly appropriate to use for intentionally changed quotes Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 14:15
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    @ValentinAslanyan: It wouldn't be inappropriate - the phrase "to misquote ________, ..." is commonly used in this way.
    – psmears
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 15:25
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    @TonyK I'll add my 2c to this and agree with you. Both 'evoke' and 'paraphrase' are actually wrong, though 'with apologies to' also works.
    – user210771
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 19:49
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    @Valentin, If you say that you are misquoting someone, it's clear that it's intentional. (If it was unintended, how would you know to draw attention to that?) Readers or listeners do understand this logical consequence without any additional prompting. Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 11:51

With apologies to -

Although this has been trotted out a bit too often, it nevertheless does what you want - it shows you know what you did, and acknowledges you did it on purpose. It is the opposite of "no pun intended."

With apologies to

Used before the name of an author or artist to indicate that something is a parody or adaptation of their work.

2001 - This Old House - With apologies to Robert Frost, boundary expert Walter Robillard says, 'Good fences on the proper line make good neighbours'.


some examples -

English notes for American circulation : with apologies to Charles Dickens by Tangye, Richard, Sir, 1833-1906
(Refers to Dickens' American Notes for General Circulation

The book of William: with apologies to Edward Lear
( A parody of Edward Lear's The book of nonsense lampooning Kaiser Wilhelm II.)

  • 1
    This is also a reasonable option, though it has the downside of being less precise with multiple differing meanings. Furthermore, and with apologies to Edmund Blackadder, it is not a common phrase down our way. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:43
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    "No pun intended" also often means the opposite of "no pun intended". See What is so bad about puns? for instance.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 9:58
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    As a native speaker of (American) English, this is the clearest, most intuitive, and most appropriate phrase when humor is intended. Most of the other answers, while technically accurate, carry negative connotations -- unfitting for humor -- and would seem more appropriate when the speaker's intention was to criticize someone else for misuse of another's words. Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 19:28

To bastardise Churchill's famous saying, I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat and misquotes

The link is to Cambridge dictionary, where bastardise is defined as

to change something in a way that makes it fail to represent the values and qualities that it is intended to represent.

Note that you bastardise the quote not the individual -- your misquote is the illegimate child of the writing not the writer.

Having speculated that this is mainly a British term I tried ngrams (including the --ize spelling) and found a couple interesting things:

  • It's only marginally more prevalent in British than American English.
  • Usage peaked in the 1820s--1840s.

But I wonder if ngrams isn't the best source for this sort of thing -- the class of books in which it might be used is rather small as some books might prefer a more formal term while others would have no need for it.

  • 1
    This is good, but a tad verbose
    – Restioson
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 17:46
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    @Restioson ...it's one word, as requested. Do you just mean it's got too many syllables? Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 18:32
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    I guess the point made by @Restioson is that you need to add "Churchill's famous saying", rather than just "Churchill", as in other answers.
    – Tom Fenech
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 8:10
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    @codinghands I've linked to an ngram search for both spellings (--ize was more common in British in the past).
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 8:04
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    Interesting, nice addition to the answer. Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 8:05

To riff on Churchill, we are about to see 'blood, sweat and spears'"

cf. What does "a riff on Shakespeare" mean?

cf. What does "life's a beach" mean?

A riff is a memorable musical phrase, often as the opening to a song or solo in jazz and rock. To riff on someone or something is to improvise from existing musical phrase. This meaning has transferred to other fields, e.g. stand-up comedy in which witty monologues are often called riffs.

See meaning #4 - riff as a noun from Merriam-Webster. To riff on is the verb form:

1 : an ostinato phrase (as in jazz) typically supporting a solo improvisation; also, a piece based on such a phrase

2 : a rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring; especially : one that is part of a comic performance

3 : a succinct usually witty comment

4: a distinct variation or take

"a disturbing riff on the Cinderella story" — Daria Donnelly


  • 1
    This works, though in my opinion it's used more in a humorous context. I've added another example where I think it doesn't quite work. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 14:32

If you wish to signal that you are playing with the quotation, you could write:

"As Churchill might have said-"


"With apologies to Churchill-"

or even

"As Churchill never said-"

But signaling a joke tends to kill it. If you feel you can rely on the intelligence of your reader (almost always a good idea), say

"To paraphrase Churchill-"

As an over-literal commenter pointed out, this is not a completely correct use of "paraphrase", which is supposed to mean that you are preserving the original meaning but you are actually doing the opposite, keeping most of the words but repurposing the passage somewhat. In an overtly humorous context, though, that's perfectly acceptible. In fact, consider outright lying:

"In the words of Churchill-"


"To quote Churchill-"

Finally, just consider dropping the introduction completely. If you introduced a discussion of Alexander with "Nothing but blood, sweat, and spears", every educated person would recognize the bastardization involved.

  • To quote Einstein: don't believe every quotation you see on the internet.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 16:59
  • I'm pretty well educated, but I don't associate the phrase "blood, sweat, and tears" with Churchill at all. I'm also American, and don't really associate any phrases with Churchill, although I'm aware he was a good speaker.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 18:02
  • @DCShannon not even but in the morning i shall be sober? Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 19:00
  • @EricWilson That doesn't even ring a bell. I looked up some quotes: brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/w/winston_churchill.html. I recognize "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.", "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.", and "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." But I wouldn't have known those were Churchill if you'd asked me. Additionally, it looks like he didn't even say "blood, sweat, and tears", but instead "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."
    – DCShannon
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 19:14
  • @DCShannon The Russia one is probably to most Churchhillian to the average American. But thought everyone had heard about his witty/mean/drunken one-liner. Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 20:40


3. to make a minor adjustment to:

e.g. to tweak a computer program.

Can be used colloquially to represent taking any idea of someone else's, then changing it slightly to make it your own, as in this bit from It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.


To parrot Churchill, we are about to see 'blood, sweat and spears.'

To echo Churchill, we are about to see 'blood, sweat and spears.'

I like these two options because they imply that we will say the same thing as Churchill, but at the same time, we all know that echoes and parrots (NSFW) do not always say exactly what we had said.

  • The sense of both "parrot" and "echo" is that the agent repeating the sound is repeating it without understanding the meaning. A phrase that is parroted or echoed is exactly the same as the original, except perhaps in the intensity of the sound. The question asks for a word where the original phrase has been significantly altered.
    – Theresa
    Commented Apr 29, 2017 at 2:43
  • While true-ish on a certain level, I would say that Theresa's comment is taking the words a little too literally. Commented May 1, 2017 at 8:58
  • In any case, as evinced by the OP's own choice of "evoked," even the word that the OP ended up with doesn't mean an "original phrase [that] has been significantly altered." Commented May 1, 2017 at 9:01

These would work, I believe. Revise, Recast, Restate

Or even "Rip Off" because the example is just a pun on a great, meaningful phrase for no good reason.


Misrepresent (Cambridge)

To describe falsely an idea, opinion, or situation, often in order to get an advantage.

e.g. I've grown used to my views being misrepresented in the press.

This works well I would say. The advantage the person misrepresenting the quote is seeking would be either a meaning more suited to their own purpose, or self-attribution of the revised saying.

  • 1
    Though not reflected in the brief definition you have provided, in most full definitions of the word and certainly in common usage, misrepresentation has connotations of deliberate deceit or falseness. Though it may be appropriate in some cases, this is not the original intention. I have put in an edit to clarify the question. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:26
  • Yes, if you are changing words in an original quote, you are almost certainly deliberately falsifying the original quote.
    – Gary
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:27
  • Not if you tell people you've changed it! Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 8:53

"Channeling Churchill," might work, regardless of your belief in the supposed phenomenon. I also like butchering as a form of self-deprecation. However, I think it's best just to make your play on words and don't try to explain the reference.

  • Saw a recent usage of it here, too.
    – user210771
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 20:37

You may consider embellish:

embellish to make something more beautiful or interesting by adding something to it.

To embellish on Churchill ...

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    Can you really embellish on someone? I thought it was only transitive.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 10:04
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    @MrLister I think you're right, but suitable embellishments for Churchill himself would be cigars and whisky.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 8:03

If you are changing the phrase for humorous or rhetorical purposes, you may like to use "snowclone".


What about co-opt?

CO-OPT to use someone else's ideas: Rock and roll music was largely co-opted from the blues.


What's wrong with "misquote"?

To misquote Somerset Maugham, the ability to misquote is a serviceable substitute for wit.

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    There's nothing wrong with misquote, in fact it's already been suggested by @Bhoomika Arora. Please check that the answer you wish to supply hasn't already been given by someone else.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 8:09
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    Please upvote Bhoomika Arora's answer, if you agree that misquote is appropriate.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 8:10

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