The Mutiny on the Bounty, and the origins of the word “morale.”

Things came to an unpleasant end on the HMS Bounty on April 28th, 1789.

Increasingly infuriated by their leader, Captain Bligh’s, harsh treatment of them, the ship’s crew mutinied, casting off the captain in a small rowing boat.

An example of Captain Bligh’s robust man-management style is his reputed warning:

“The floggings will continue until morale improves.”


While that exact quotation is probably apocryphal, Bligh’s severe style certainly isn’t in question.

I’ve started with this story today to get us thinking about the term “morale,” which I’ve been looking into over the past couple of weeks.

As part of my long-term interest in the potential of self-tracking systems to enable us to better understand and manage our emotional health, it occurred to me that morale might be a helpful quality to explore.

What if we found a way to determine our level of morale at any given time, then tracked it day-to-day, combining this with practical actions (the kinds of “nudges” we’re familiar with) designed to raise morale?

In my ten years of fascination with mental health, I haven’t really heard much talk about morale.

Intuitively, though, it feels as if it’s a state of mind that would be closely connected to emotional health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

In fact, a little digging in the Stanford archives brought to light a fantastic 1974 paper written by Jerome (Jerry) Frank, who was then Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland.

In his paper, Psychotherapy: The Restoration of Morale, Professor Frank recommended that the main aim for all types of psychotherapy should be to restore a patient’s morale.

In his view, “no good evidence exists that one therapy produces better results than another,” but he said that any successful course of psychotherapy should effectively address an individual’s sense of demoralisation.

Frank’s paper goes on to list feelings of impotence, isolation, despair, and damaged self-esteem as being among those that contribute to someone becoming demoralised.

Just about all the experts I’ve spoken to agree that the biggest predictor of a successful psychotherapeutic outcome is not the actual methodology used (CBT or psychoanalysis, for two poles-apart examples) but the connection that gets forged between the therapist and client/patient.

When these two people “click,” the outcome is likely to be a whole lot better than if they don’t. Frank suggested that four key attributes for an effective therapist are warmth, empathy, genuineness, and enthusiasm.

A more recent paper, published in 2015, reported a remarkable study of older adults, all at least 85 years of age, in Sweden and Finland.

People who felt optimistic about life and who had something to look forward to, lived five years longer on average than their more pessimistic counterparts.

The researchers surveyed 646 people, using a 17-item questionnaire, once in 2000-2002, then again in 2005-2007.

At the five-year follow-up, 56% of those in the high morale group were still alive, compared to 32% in the low morale group, even after controlling for age, gender, and various health conditions.

Apparently, keeping a positive outlook in later life will help you stay alive longer.

The study’s lead author, John Niklasson, consulting geriatrician at Umeå University in Sweden, wrote that when making his medical rounds one day he’d met an older woman who told him, “I don’t have any reason to live.”

Dr Niklasson explained that she hadn’t said this in any dramatic or suicidal way, but just as a cold “fact.”

Later the same morning, he spoke to another woman of similar age and equivalent disease level, who said to him “I don’t have time to stay in the hospital. I have to go home today. I have so much to do.”

So, morale seems a vital quality for us to have and to maintain. But where did the word originate?

Where would I be without that annual library card? I turned once again to the trusty Stanford University archives.

It felt to me as though it’s a term that may have originated in the military – Captain Bligh was reputed to have used it, after all – and it turns out I was correct.

Morale, with an “e,” originally came from the word moral, which is of course used to mean the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil.

We have the Roman orator Cicero to thank for “moral.”

Around 63 BC (or BCE, to be more modern) he coined the word “moralis” from the Greek term “ethikos.”

How the heck do you get from ethikos to moralis?

Although this sounds like a question you’d ask a travel agent, who’d maybe answer by flipping through the pages of a Greek ferry timetable, we simply have to accept that Cicero did indeed get from one word to the other.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century that the French word moral (pronounced morale, with the accent on the second syllable, printed in italics to represent its non-English origin, and also with an added “e”) began to be used to mean the capacity of people to maintain belief in an institution or goal – or in oneself, or others.

Explanations of how the word moral acquired its “e” and a different meaning, are fuzzy.

However, the most plausible I’ve found suggests that armies maintained confidence in their actions by telling themselves that they were fighting for a moral cause.

So your morale was high when you believed you were on the side of the good and the right.

I like this idea.

It seems to hold water, in the same way that Captain Bligh’s rowing boat did. Fortunately for him.

Successive early editions of the Oxford English Dictionary reported that use of the word “morale” was rare before 1914, and when it was used, it was almost always in a military context.

However, as the 20th century progressed, it became a much more widely adopted term, perhaps as a result of two world wars. It led to people thinking about both military and civilian morale.

Earlier we saw how Jerome Frank weighed the consequences of demoralisation in his 1974 paper.

Actually, demoralisation, too, began life in the military, where it was adopted to describe its use as a weapon in psychological warfare.

By undermining your enemy’s confidence, you’d weaken them, making them easier to beat.

In the same way, of course, demoralisation can compromise us, meaning that maintaining good morale is pretty crucial.

As you might conclude from this longer than usual nudge, I’m taken by the idea of morale, particularly if there’s a way for us to measure it and then, perhaps, boost it.

I’m also wondering if the methodology we’ve developed for Signpost might be applied to managing morale, instead of mood.

You know what?

I think we may just be on to something here, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

More reading:

High morale linked to longer survival among elderly

High morale is associated with increased survival in the very old

Psychotherapy: The Restoration of Morale

14 thoughts on “The Mutiny on the Bounty, and the origins of the word “morale.”

  1. Hi Jon

    I think the term morale is a great improvement.

    ‘Mood’ while useable doesn’t have the same overall sense of roundness as ‘morale’. I feel much better when I think of my ‘morale’.

  2. I was adopted just before I turned 6 – after having been in several living situation such as foster homes, an orphanage etc. When I arrived at my adoptive parents home I would say I had a fairly high morale. After years of emotional abuse – by the time I left their home 10 years later my self esteem and morale was very low. It has taken me 40 years (I’m now in my sixties) to recover what I think was my true nature. I am optimistic now and quite a positive person. I used many aides to recover my morale – cognitive behavioural therapy, yoga, friends, and the life of my children and now grandchildren.

    I believe it is a much happier life I live now and the work was well worth it.

    Your mood nudges are a pleasure to receive, thank you for what you do.

  3. I’m a big fan of this line of thinking. I do well with a constant tendency to point in the direction of greater belief in myself, no matter my ‘current state’. ‘What are you grateful for today?’ might be a nice Signpost question. It is by little increments over many years that I have turned the current of my thinking from self-flogging to tender encouragement. It makes a huge difference. Thank You for your ongoing continuing steadfast good work!

    1. Kate, thank you for another reminder that turning thinking around is often (always?) a slow and steady process. I love the idea of “tender encouragement.” Really powerful, and moving, even.

  4. Jon, what great thoughts – I do love this approach.
    Some of my favourite morale boosting initiatives are:
    Making a nice meal and then sitting down and eating it in style – nicely presented, with the best plates and cutlery and a glass of wine;
    Baking a loaf – kneading must be the ultimate morale boost, well, apart from eating the resultant bread warm from the oven with lashings of butter;
    Taking a risk – going a new way with the dogs/trying a new and scary recipe/buying something in a different style and wearing it (yikes!!);
    Making a decision, for better or worse, when you’ve been stuck for an age;
    Learning a list of Gaelic irregular verbs/juvenile gull identification/your mobile phone number/how to switch on the telly;
    Reading a recipe, having the right ingredients and Preparing Everything before you start to cook;
    Going to the bottle bank, doing the dishes before going to bed, polishing your shoes…
    D’you know, I feel better for just having written these down.

    1. What a brilliant list, Gill. Thank you. I think you’re absolutely right, that all these suggestions feel like morale-boosters. And it’s not quite the same as mood-boosting, is it?

      I love the idea of juvenile gull identification. Would make a great specialist subject on Mastermind.

  5. I enjoyed your thoughts on morale, Jon, and agree with others who find it a helpful term. Yes, I agree. You’re on to something here.

  6. Jon,
    Very thought provoking.
    Think I need to twist my negitivity thinking to boost my morale. When cooking I always worry the outcome is not going to be right, why because it hasn’t been, I need like Gill to treat cooking as a morale booster, because if truth be known I enjoy cooking. I think it has a lot to do with trying to lose weight etc.
    Jon the research you did to write your blog is incredible, I “take my hat off to you”

  7. Loosely related: some fellow sufferers of low moral are setting up a music therapy camping weekend at Brandeers studio air bnb.
    We are enthusiastic amateurs. Any advice gratefully received 😀

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