Friday, April 18, 2008


The Beatings will continue until morale improves.
Among my friends and family I have a reputation for knowing or being able to find out obscure facts and origins of words or expressions. I enjoy that kind of research, but sometimes the information is too difficult to find. I never really give up, but since I can’t persuade my family or friends to pay me, I move whatever query it might be to the back burner and hope that something will turn up.
A good example happened some time back when a colleague asked if I could track down three “ditties” that he had known for years. I found two, but one still eludes me. (I’ve put them at the end of this piece, in case you’re interested.
Another happened just last week. A friend asked whether I happened to know the origin of the saying “The Beatings will continue until morale improves.” I didn’t, off the top of my head, but said I’d look into it.
This expression is found on t-shirts and bumper-stickers, pirate flags and posters, and all manner of motivational paraphernalia, but not in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, or any of the standard dictionaries of quotations. This is often the first sign that a search is going to be difficult. Worse still, Google turned up none of the usual web sites that are devoted to quotations (and I tried every variant I could think of for beatings: floggings, lashings, and whippings).
The phrase does have its own entry in Wikipedia, where it is described as “a famous quote of questionable origin.” The rigorous standards of Wikipedia are shown by the tag ”citation needed” appended to the claim that “The origin of the phrase is largely unknown, causing some to speculate that it is apocryphal.” Possible origins are mentioned, each with notes, but all the references were dead ends, other web sites that asserted an origin for the phrase but on no authority.
The Wikipedia article claims that the most common explanation of the phrase come from the Japanese Imperial Navy during World War II; sometimes more particularly to the Commander of the Japanese Submarine Force. A variant is that it was meant facetiously, and referred to Japanese losses rather than physical beatings. (Actually, the writer said “literal physical beatings”.)
Finding nothing but unsupported statements, I decided to check with a friend who studies in Japan. He did an internet search there. He came up with no hits on Japanese-language sites, and only one on a bilingual Japanese-English site of “American Jokes”, where it was under the heading “Office sayings”. My friend added
In any case, the problematic phrase is translated here as "Only when one criticizes people harshly does moral improve." While not definitive proof of anything, of note here is, of course, the fact that this phrase isn't recognized as being "Japanese" by the translator, or is seen to have any ties to a preexisting/known Japanese phrase (the Japanese translation doesn't generate any other hits, for instance).
He also thought the suggestion that it might be facetious somewhat unlikely, since the pun on “beatings” doesn’t seem to work in Japanese. (Puns are notoriously hard to translate.)
On a different site I found the only version of the Japanese commander explanation that seems at all likely. “An old navy officer from WWII” posted a note to a blog stating that the beatings in question were beatings of Americans prisoners. Ths makes sense, but I would be happier with some fuirther information.
One other fragment of evidence comes in an expression familiar in the Canadian forces, “leave will end until morale improves,” which seems to have been quoted by John Dieffenbaker in the Commons in 1967 (quoted from Winnipeg Free Press, 3 March of that year in This saying was also quoted to me by another friend last weekend as soon as I mentioned the "beatings" line..
Oter people on other sites suggest that the saying goes back to such individuals as Blackbeard, Captain Crunch, and “the Renowned and Formidable Madam Clare of Chelsea”, apparently a Dominatrix.
There is no doubt that someone with the time could track this saying down to its source, but I doubt that I shall be on the hunt any time soon. For all I can tell it was made up by some clever wag, unhappy at work, to encapsulate his feelings about his boss.
Perhaps someone who knows something definite will read this and let me know. I only ask that if you do have an answer, you provide names and dates, and above all references. The most annoying thing about e-research is how often one meets unfounded assertions.
The Three Ditties
The first was “A little bit of butter for the middle class's bread, when Baldwin said, 'Why margarine will do just as well instead'". It’s on the back burner now: I’ve looked through the standard reference books, I’ve googled every version of it I could think of, and looked through books on Stanley Baldwin, but to no avail. I think I know what the ditty refers to, and since it is obviously a parody of Milne’s “The King’s Breakfast” {“Could we have some butter for The Royal slice of bread?", though in that poem marmalade was the suggested substitute}, then it must have appeared after 30 January 1924, when Milne’s poem was published in Punch. But that's all I can say so far.
The next obvious step is to go through every issue of Punch and then all the other periodicals and newspapers until it is found. If I don’t get around to it, and you find it, please let me know.
The next one, "Mustard with mutton: sure to be a glutton”, turned up in various books of proverbs, such as B. Whiting's Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings, which refers it to N. Monsarrat, Life (1966), 1, 9: “Mustard with Mutton was the sign of a glutton.” This form also turned up frequently on the internet. But the saying goes back a long way under other guises. The earliest entry for "Mustard is meat for a glutton", is in Tilley's Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the XVI & XVII Centuries, dated 1611. I found "Flesh of a Mutton is food for a glutton (or so was held in old time, when Beefe and Bacon were your only dainties),".but need to remember where. In Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Sayings (mostly XV Cent), Whiting cites the Townley Plays, 1460: "A Moton of an ewe that was roton. Good mete for a gloton".
The last was the easiest: “There are many things you can do at the seashore that you can't do in town. Picture Mother with her legs all bare paddling in the fountain in Trafalgar Square!" A simple search on Google provided not only the lyrics, but also a recording of an old Musical Hall song:
You Can Do A Lot of Things at the Seaside
Have you ever noticed when you're going by the sea,
The things that people do with impunity?
If they did the same things when they're up in town,
Moral Mrs. Grundy on her face would wear a frown.
Father, Mother -- all the family --
Trundle down to have their paddle by the sea.
Mother takes her stockings off upon the sandy shore,
And shows a lot of linen that she's never shown before.
You can do a lot of things at the seaside
that you can't do in town.
Fancy seeing Mother with her legs all bare,
Paddling in the fountains at Trafalgar Square,
Bobbing up 'n down in the water
Would make a policeman frown.
(And those are just some of the things I do for fun!)

No comments: