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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.

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    In what context? Where did you see/hear/read this? More information is needed for clarity.
    – Hank
    Feb 1, 2017 at 16:09
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    Although often attributed to Captain Bligh, I cannot find any real citation. Feb 1, 2017 at 16:11
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    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, 2017 at 16:50
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    @Chris H - you could add to the question your initial research and make it on topic.
    – user66974
    Feb 1, 2017 at 17:12
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    @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, 2017 at 17:53

6 Answers 6

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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.

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  • 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, 2017 at 22:07
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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.

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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.

The expression also appears in the "Training" chapter of U.S. Bureau of Naval Personnel, Steelworker 1 & C (1966 edition):

How can you tell that training is needed? A need for training is indicated whenever the following conditions exist:

...

  1. Morale is low and men are disloyal. Low morale can be a serious problem and it cannot be raised by saying "liberty is cancelled until morale improves."

Steelworker 1 & C was published in three major editions—in 1950, 1960, and 1966—as well as with minor updates in other years. I have not found a copy of the 1960 edition, but an intermediate edition from 1954 does not include any mention of the expression, despite referring to "morale" on four separate occasions.

The next-earliest match for an expression of the form [punishment] until morale improves" appears in a Canadian House of Commons debate referring to a newspaper item published in the Dartmouth [Nova Scotia] Free Press on March 17, 1967 [combined snippets], where "liberty" is repolaced by "leave":

[Mr. McCleave (Halifax-East Hants).] If there is any question among hon. members opposite that morale is not a problem in the Royal Canadian Navy, I should like to refer to the daily orders of H.M.C.S. Saguenay, a destroyer-escort, for Monday, February 27, 1967. I have before me a photo- stat copy as reproduced in the Dartmouth Free Press for March 17. 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 Dar[t]mouth Free Press. So any attempt to gloss over the suggestion that morale in the services is not the same as it used to be before these strange processes got under way is defeated, and the minister can find no comfort in the state of the morale in the Royal Canadian Navy today, which he can observe just as easily as we can.

...

Mr. Cadieux (Terrebonne): May I ask the hon. gentleman a question? The hon. member referred to an order which had been posted on the Saguenay on February 27, I think he said, indicating that no leave would be granted. I should like to underline the fact that on Monday, February 27 the Saguenay was at sea, so certainly some of the naval personnel at Halifax have not lost their sense of humour.

Mr. McCleave: It is possible they have not lost their sense of humour, and that is one way to look at the situation. But I presume that application must be made for leave and this is a matter which is dealt with during the course of a voyage and as the ship approaches port. So if this was an attempt at humour it was an ill-conceived attempt. It meant enough to some people at least that they raised a fearful row, or attempted to, by sending this extract to one of the newspapers in my area.

Another shift in wording appears in James McKenney, "Motivation and Marines," in The Marine Corps Gazette (July 1975):

Ever heard, “No mail until morale improves." We know this is said in jest, but the implication is that more mail will increase motivation/morale.

The earliest non-military instance of the expression I found involves firing rather than beating or flogging. From "IBEW Members Fight Back in West Virginia: VEPCO Workers Fired After Filing Safety Complaint," in Mountain Life and Work (May 1979) [snippet view]:

A desk sign currently on the market to brighten your day reads, "Firings will continue until morale improves." The philosophy seems to work. One hundred forty-eight workers at Vepco's Mt. Storm, West Virginia plant are still on the job despite the selective firing of forty of their brothers.

Next to arrive (in the databases I consulted) is "floggings," which appears in the title of an article by Ed Rasco in the January 1987 issue of Management World, cited in Human Resources Management (1990):

"The Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves"

Confirmed instances of "beatings" begin to appear a couple of years later. From Thomas Hinton, The Spirit of Service: How to Re-invent a Customer-Focused Service Strategy for the New Decade and Beyond (1991) [snippet View]:

Contrarily, in the fast food restaurant that has an unusually high churn factor and suffers from low morale and low pay, this is where you find posters hanging on the office walls saying, "Beatings will continue until morale improves!" But more on service cultures later.

Likewise in 1991, Bad Bob Smith published an 88-page book titled Mox Nix: Memoirs of an American GI, Or, The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.


Conclusions

It seems very likely that humorous/sardonic expressions of the form "[a punishment] will continue until morale improves" originated in the U.S. Navy in the form "all liberty is canceled until morale improves." The first recorded instance that various book and periodical database searches turn up is from a cartoon caption in 1961, although the cartoonist may simply have been repeating a witticism already in circulation.

Subsequent permutations of the expression involve "no leave" (from the Canadian Royal Navy in 1967), "no mail" (U.S. Marine Corps in 1975), "firings" (a labor union magazine in 1979), "floggings" (a human resources magazine in 1987), and "beatings" (U.S. business and U.S. Army sources in 1991).

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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

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    Thank you. I actually happened to see the movie on TV last night for the second time. Sep 27, 2018 at 13:02
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    The question was, "What's the origin", not "Who else copied it".
    – Brondahl
    Mar 13, 2020 at 10:34
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    1952 is way earlier than the any other source described here (1961 All Hands). So please upvote this answer. Does anyone know what was the specific line in the movie? I am sad that callous downvoting seems yet again to have driven away a helpful newcomer...
    – Laska
    Sep 14, 2021 at 4:17
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    Others are saying the phrase does not appear in the movie and I didn't find it in a search of the transcript. Please provide the exact phrase you're referring to, and its position in the movie. Here is one YouTube link (don't know how long it will survive) youtube.com/watch?v=ASVCAvg1yvI
    – Kilo
    Nov 2, 2023 at 16:32
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    I just checked all of the scenes in which Richard Boone appears in Kilo's YouTube link (which includes the entire movie) and didn't find anything in them similar to the quoted phrase. My apologies if I missed it somewhere in skipping through the scenes.
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 10, 2023 at 0:28
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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.

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    Welcome to EL&U. Are you actually citing a t-shirt as a source? Jul 6, 2018 at 21:09
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    I can't find an earlier source alas
    – Laska
    Sep 14, 2021 at 4:29
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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.)

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    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, 2019 at 5:37
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    The question was, "What's the origin", not "Who else copied it".
    – Brondahl
    Mar 13, 2020 at 10:34

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