What is the origin of the phrase the beatings will continue until morale improves?

There is a Metafilter and a Quora out on it, but they are inconclusive, and the phrase does not appear in the dictionary.

  • 1
    In what context? Where did you see/hear/read this? More information is needed for clarity. – Hank Feb 1 '17 at 16:09
  • 2
    Although often attributed to Captain Bligh, I cannot find any real citation. – Cascabel Feb 1 '17 at 16:11
  • 4
    Interestingly ngrams has nothing before 1976 for "continue until morale improves". I chose this form because there's a 5-word limit and "floggings" is sometime seen instead of "beatings". Some of the earliest hits in that ngrams search were for "firings". The question is actually interesting, but the OP could have done a lot of the initial searching . – Chris H Feb 1 '17 at 16:50
  • 1
    @Chris H - you could add to the question your initial research and make it on topic. – user66974 Feb 1 '17 at 17:12
  • 1
    @Josh I was thinking about it but didn't have time to do anything I would call proper before shutting down my PC. I .e. the ngrams bit isn't sufficient IMO, and most of the rest of my conclusions were from Google's search-page summaries. Comments are one thing on a mobile, citable edits another. – Chris H Feb 1 '17 at 17:53

Morale is probably the key word of the expression which has a few variants;

"The firings/floggings/beatings will continue until morale improves

  • Morale meaning "confidence" (especially in a military context) first recorded 1831, from confusion with French moral (Modern French distinguishes le moral "temperament" and la morale "morality"). (etymonline)

and the military contexts are the probably where the expressions come from as suggested by the site barrypopik.com

  • The saying might have originated in the navy. The Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations (1966) by Robert Debs Heinl includes, “There will be no liberty on board this ship until morale improves.—Excerpt from Plan of the Day, USS * * *.” “No leave until morale improves” has been cited in print since at least 1967.

The same site provides a few related sentences from the 60s:

From Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations By Robert Debs Heinl Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Inst. 1966

  • Pg. 197: There will be no liberty on board this ship until morale improves. Excerpt from Plan of the Day, USS

From House of Commons Debates, Official Report Canada. Parliament. House of Commons Issue 1, Volume 14 1966

  • Pg. 14,511: Part of the daily orders reads as follows: There will be no leave until morale Improves. The words “no leave until morale improves” have been underlined by the person who sent this excerpt to the Darmouth Free Press.

The is no real evidence to support the more commonly cited origins, that is Captain Bligh and the Mutiny on the Bounty, and the commander of the Submarine Force of the Japanese Imperial Navy during World War II.

  • If the phrase dated back to Bligh it would antedate the citation you have above for morale, so another word would probably be needed. I couldn't think of an appropriate synonym when I played with ngrams earlier. – Chris H Feb 1 '17 at 22:07

The sentiment is surely as timeless a grumble as any. Pour encourager les autres, borrowed from Voltaire, is used often enough to find its way into dictionaries (e.g. MW, OLD). Taken literally, it would map more closely to the meaning of make an example of someone to use a modern idiom. Candide (1759), however, is a work of satire, and the phrase is used ironically.

For the phrasing as X until morale improves, however, there doesn't seem to be any clear origin, nor for variations floating around like floggings will continue until morale improves (which I have seen on T-shirts as FWCUMI) or all leave has been canceled until morale shall have improved, among others.

Morale in the sense of one's confidence and good emotional state is attested only from the early 19th century, according to the OED. Prior to that, the predominant meaning would have been morality. As such, I think the attribution to Captain Bligh of the Bounty is probably apocryphal, especially as there appears to be no such direct quotation from him or from the mutineers, even in their Hollywood adaptations.

A military origin is possible. There is an entry in Robert Heinl's 1966 Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations, published by the U.S. Naval Institute:

There will be no liberty on board this ship until morale improves. — Excerpt from Plan of the Day, USS * * *

A cartoon captioned … and all liberty is canceled until morale improves appears even further back in All Hands, a magazine published by the U.S. Bureau of Naval Personnel, from November 1961.

There are unattested attributions on the web to some or other never-named World War II Japanese naval commander. That too, seems likely to be apocryphal. But such a tale could have been spun by one sailor and then popularized through the ranks, eventually making its way into print and vernacular usage.


The earliest closely relevant match I've been able to find for this expression is from a cartoon by Lt. B.E. Lodge, U.S. Navy, submitted for the All-Navy Cartoon Contest and published in All Hands: The Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin (November 1961) with the following caption:

"... and all liberty is canceled until morale improves."

The same cartoon appears almost five years later, in All Hands: The Bureau of Naval Personnel Career Publication (July 1966), with the same wording (but different punctuation):

"And all liberty is canceled until morale improves."

A very similar expression appears in Terrence Sutherland, "Applications of Recent Sociological Surveys to Personnel Management Aboard Ship," in Naval War College Review (April 1967):

The story of an assistant manager of an industrial department which had a poor production record illustrates the above point further: "This interest-in-people approach is all right, but it's a luxury. I've got to keep pressure on for production, and when I get production up, then i can afford to take time to show an interest in my employees and their problems!" This sounds much like a frequently repeated phrase heard in jest in the Navy today: "Now all liberty is cancelled until morale improves."

Well of course the phrase was frequently repeated in jest in the Navy at that time—it kept showing up every five years or so in All Hands.


Capt. Horatio Stark 1811. Per a T-shirt seen at Fort Madison IA in reference to a commander of the Fort during the war of 1812.

  • 9
    Welcome to EL&U. Are you actually citing a t-shirt as a source? – Cascabel Jul 6 '18 at 21:09

ALSO USED by an Agentinian Commander played by Richard Boone in "Way of a Gaucho" (set in Argentina, circa 1875), starring Rory Calhoun as Martin Penalosa, ALIAS Valverde, and Gene Tierney as Teresa Chavez - 1952

  • 1
    Thank you. I actually happened to see the movie on TV last night for the second time. – Scarlet Rose Sep 27 '18 at 13:02
  • 1
    The question was, "What's the origin", not "Who else copied it". – Brondahl Mar 13 '20 at 10:34

Herb Caen column, November 1964, sign at an "industrial plant," "Layoffs will continue until morale improves." (Probably not from management, but from a disgruntled employee who picked up the saying elsewhere.)

  • 4
    Can you please include a link or cite your source more completely, i.e. the name of the newspaper in which Herb Caen was a journalist, I have tried searching myself in order to check the date but came up empty handed. – Mari-Lou A Aug 6 '19 at 5:37
  • 1
    The question was, "What's the origin", not "Who else copied it". – Brondahl Mar 13 '20 at 10:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.