Naval Officer? Voltaire? William Pitt Lennox? Herb Caen? Howard Jacobs? Norman R. Augustine? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: When an organization encounters difficulties, and its members experience low morale, it is counterproductive to enforce harsh discipline. This notion can be captured with the following sarcastic remark:
The beatings will continue until morale improves.
Close variants of this statement replace the word “beatings” with “whippings” or “floggings”. Would you please explore the provenance of this family of remarks?
Quote Investigator: There are many comical statements containing the phrase “until morale improves”. Some researchers have asserted that instances were circulating during World War II, but QI has found no evidence to support that claim. The saying is difficult to trace because of its mutability. Here is a sampling together with years of occurrence that provides an overview:
- 1961: . . . all liberty is canceled until morale improves
- 1964: Layoffs will continue until morale improves
- 1965: No Beer, Card Playing, Mail Call, . . . until morale improves
- 1967: . . . no leave until morale improves
- 1977: Firing will continue until morale improves
- 1986: . . . cancel all vacations until morale improved
- 1988: Restructuring will continue until morale improves
- 1988: The floggings will continue until morale improves
- 1989: The beatings will continue, until morale improves
- 1992: The Whippings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
Below are selected citations in chronological order.
A thematic precursor appeared in Voltaire’s famous novella “Candide” in 1759. The witty philosopher was aware of the unfortunate death of English Admiral John Byng who was court-martialed and executed in 1757. Many observers considered Byng’s punishment unjust, and Voltaire constructed a mocking remark about the event which was spoken by Candide’s companion when the fictional duo visited England. Here is the original French statement followed by a translation into English. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1
Mais dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de tems en tems un Amiral pour encourager les autres.
But in this country it is good to kill an Admiral from time to time to encourage the others.
Of course, killing someone is unlikely to provide encouragement or a morale boost to colleagues who remain alive. The gist of Voltaire’s quip was similar to the family of sayings under analysis.
In 1863 the words of Voltaire were alluded to in a memoir by Lord William Pitt Lennox who described the hazing experienced by pupils at the Westminster School in England. Younger students were pressured into performing tasks for older students. The following passage referred to flogging instead of execution: 2
Later in the day he had to . . . run messages, and do his little marketings . . . with the risk, if caught out of bounds, of having a flogging, to encourage the others, as a Frenchman said of the execution of Admiral Byng.
In 1909 a statement comparable to the one published in 1863 appeared in the “Locomotive Engineers’ Monthly Journal” of Cleveland Ohio. The domain was shifted back from the schoolyard to the navy: 3
In those good old days we flogged our sailormen “to encourage the others,” and there were many trussed at the triangles who would now be simply admonished.
In 1961 a U.S. Navy publication called “All Hands” printed a one-panel comic depicting a naval officer addressing a group of sailors. The caption presented an instance within the family of caustic jokes about morale: 4
“. . . and all liberty is canceled until morale improves.”
In 1964 the popular San Francisco syndicated humorist Herb Caen printed another instance in the family: 5
Strange notice in a local industrial plant: “Layoffs will continue until morale improves,” and THERE’S a riddle.
In 1965 “The World” newspaper of Coos Bay, Oregon published an article about U.S. soldiers serving in Vietnam: 6
“I think I mentioned that the morale of the junior officers was pretty low. Well, not too low to take time out for tricks. A couple of them put up a sign in the “O” Club, a tent frame with no tent which nobody has time to use:
R & R
UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES
We all had a lot of laughs.
In 1966 the “Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations” included the following entry. Asterisks occurred in the original text: 7
There will be no liberty on board this ship until morale improves.
Excerpt from Plan of the Day, USS * * *
In 1967 the “Saskatoon Star-Phoenix” of Canada printed the following: 8
He produced a copy of the daily order list from HMCS Saguenay and read part of it: “There will be no leave until morale improves.”
“What nonsense is this,” said Mr. Diefenbaker. “Do they think that cancelling leave will help morale?”
In 1974 columnist Howard Jacobs writing in “The Times-Picayune” of New Orleans, Louisiana described a message on a sign: 9
LIFTED NIFTY: Hanging in a downtown office is this ominous caution: FIRINGS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES. (“Choupique” quoting Roy Perrin.)
In 1977 an instance appeared in the reference work “Quote Unquote” compiled by Lloyd Cory: 10
(Sign in a boss’ office): Firing will continue until morale improves.
In 1986 by Norman R. Augustine who was chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation published “Augustine’s Laws”, and he included an instance: 11
Clearly some further decisive step would be needed beyond the recent issuance of company cars to the headquarters staff if the morale of the project’s personnel was to be recovered. Having abandoned the suggestion to cancel all vacations until morale improved, attention turned to the matter of providing still more management strength . . .
In 1988 the book “Corporate Strategy and the Search for Ethics” printed a quip about corporate restructuring: 12
Nulty quotes a Bureau of Labor Statistics study that “between 1981 and 1986 almost 500,000 executive, administrative, and management workers lost jobs that they had held for at least 3 years.” As one friend of ours in a restructured company puts it , “Restructuring will continue until morale improves!”
Also, in 1988 “The Prescott Courier” of Arizona printed a family instance using the word “floggings”: 13
“The floggings will continue until morale improves,” said a sign posted outside the Senate minority caucus room.
In 1989 a message posted to the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.nordic contained an instance using the word “beatings”: 14
NOTICE: The beatings will continue, until MORALE IMPROVES!!
In 1990 the book “Into the Sunlight: Life After the Iron Curtain” mentioned an instance while discussing the capital of Japan: 15
But before I could get started he began filling me in on the challenges of working for a Japanese company. “As they say in Tokyo, ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves.'”
In 1992 a message posted to the Usenet newsgroup alt.peeves included an instance using the word “whippings” as an infix within a name: 16
Russ “The Whippings Will Continue Until Morale Improves” Kepler
In conclusion, this family of sayings was circulating by 1961. Over the years there have been many variants. The originator remains anonymous.
The quip written by Voltaire in “Candide” may have provided inspiration for this family, but the evidence is not definitive. Voltaire’s remark led to the satirical catch phrase “to encourage the others” which has been coupled with a variety of activities which emphatically do not provide encouragement, e.g., executions and whippings. Quips based on the phrases “to encourage the others” and “until morale improves” employ a comparable template.
(QI performed a preliminary exploration of this topic back in December 2009. At that time, QI shared the 1966 citation with a mailing list. Professor Jonathan Lighter told QI about the germane Voltaire citation. Other mailing list discussants provided helpful feedback including: Wilson Gray, Seán Fitzpatrick, and Bill Palmer. In 2012 fellow researcher Barry Popik published a beneficial webpage on the topic. Thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote who created a pertinent webpage that was later deleted. Additional thanks to the participants at the websites Metafilter, Quora, English.Stackexchange, Wikiquote, and Reddit. Great thanks to Paul Rauber whose 2020 inquiry led QI to continue this exploration and share the results on the QI website.)
- 1759, Candide, ou L’Optimisme (Candide or Optimism) by Voltaire, (Traduit de L’Allemand Mr. Le Docteur Ralph), Chapitre Vingt-Troisième (Chapter 23), Quote Page 127, Publisher not specified. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1863, Fifty Years’ Biographical Reminiscences by Lord William Pitt Lennox, Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 4, Quote Page 112, Hurst and Blackett, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1909 February, Locomotive Engineers’ Monthly Journal, Volume 43, Number 2, Public Ridicule, Start Page 107, Quote Page 107, Column 2, Published by Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Cleveland Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1961 November, All Hands: The Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin, Section: The Bulletin Board, (Caption of one-panel comic), Quote Page 55, Column 1, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1964 November 30, Santa Maria Times, Love Story for Burdick by Herb Caen, Quote Page 20, Column 6, Santa Maria, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1965 December 14, The World, Officer Says Viet Cong Use Poisonous Snakes As Weapons, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Coos Bay, Oregon. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1966, Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations, Edited by Robert Debs Heinl, Category: Morale, Quote Page 197, Column 2, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1967 March 31, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Diefenbaker warms to task on unification, monarchy, Section: The Third Page, Quote Page 3, Column 6, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1974 January 16, The Times-Picayune, Remoulade: Data on ‘Ain’t No More’ Blues Sought by Howard Jacobs, Quote Page 11, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1977, Quote Unquote, Compiled by Lloyd Cory, Topic: Morale, Quote Page 214, Published by Victor Books: A Division of SP Publications, Wheaton, Illinois. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1986, Augustine’s Laws by Norman R. Augustine (Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation), Chapter 27: Hail on the Chief, Quote Page 182, Viking: Penguin Group, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1988, Corporate Strategy and the Search for Ethics by R. Edward Freeman and Daniel R. Gilbert Jr., Section: Endnotes for Chapter 1, Quote Page 179, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1988 June 30, The Prescott Courier, Legislators race to finish the session (Associated Press), Quote Page 1B, Column 2, Prescott, Arizona. (Google Newspaper Archive at news.google.com) ↩
- 1989 June 28, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: soc.culture.nordic, From: Martin A. Lodahl @PacBell.COM, Subject: Re: Aarhus vs. Copenhagen. (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 14, 2020) ↩
- 1990, Into the Sunlight: Life After the Iron Curtain by Roger Rapoport, Afterword: Surfing on a Deluge, Quote Page 99, Heyday Books, Berkeley, California. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1992 August 16, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: alt.peeves, From: Russ Kepler @bbxrbk, Subject: Re: RADIO SHACK FASCISM. (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 14, 2020) link ↩