“The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
It may take a while to fully comprehend ituntil you consider the idiom is supposed to be said ironically. A lot of idioms may be difficult to understand, but that’s because some of them require more than just putting logic to the thought; you also need to understand the history behind it.
In this article, we delve into the idioms more difficult to understand, pull them apart, and help you understand what it means and why it means that.
What’s an Idiom?
To refresh your mind, an idiom is a phrase or sentence you’re not supposed to take literally. Instead, you have to understand the figurative meaning hidden in between the lines. While some of these idioms may seem confusing or hard to derive the meaning, some of these idioms are used in everyday conversation, though we don’t even notice it.
For example, the phrase “getting out of hand” means things are getting too out of control. Or if you give someone words of encouragement, you tell them to “hang in there.” It’s already understood by native speakers without having to think about what it means because it’s used a lot of times in everyday conversations.
Idioms with a Background or History
However, some idioms are not as popular, or people don’t really understand the meaning or history behind it and may not understand it at first. As a child, you might have already been taught some idioms, but you may not understand the phrase “A Trojan horse” until you’ve read up on Ancient Greek literature or learned stories about the Trojan War.
In other cases, there are common idioms where people are more likely to use them but do not understand what it really means. The phrase “pardon my French,” for example, is used to excuse the user for using swear words. It’s actually used for comic effect, saying that the swear word is part of a foreign language the listener might have misheard.
For idioms with historical background, look at the idiom “close, but no cigar.” While it might sound like a confusing way of saying someone fails or gets something wrong when they’re close to succeeding, the phrase has a historical background. In the late 19th and 20th century, carnivals were handing out cigars as prizes for games. Those who lost or failed to win a prize when they were so close to winning were told, “close, but no cigar,” and it’s an idiom that lasted until today.
“The beatings will continue until morale improves.
This idiom is supposedly based on history, though there’s no real evidence or citations to fully confirm this. It’s supposedly attributed to Captain William Bligh and the Mutiny on the HMS Bountyin 1789. He was known as a tyrannical, overbearing captain who handed out increasingly harsh punishments, criticism, and abuse on his crew. At one point, he was said to have doled out floggings for small misdemeanors, declaring “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”
Either Bligh was insane when he said this and genuinely expected morale to improve with the beatings, or it was said ironically, no one is totally sure. You’ll find various definitions of the phrase online, but given the context and its relevance, it arguably is an ironic nod towards negative reinforcement.
Under negative reinforcement, we stop, remove, or avoid a behavior by introducing the object to punishment or negative reinforcement so that they are discouraged from repeating the same action. However, by continuing the form of negative reinforcement, you can’t really blame the people for keeping a low morale or feeling miserable while they work. So, the phrase ironically tells the listener that negative reinforcement will continue until it achieves a goal that is likely impossible given the negative reinforcement.
Using the Idiom Today
Like other idioms based on historical or literal events, it’s possible to use the idiom in conversation even in a different context. Saying “the beatings will continue until morale improves,” for example, in the context of the workplace. Pretend that your boss enforces new policies that make your job harder or the workplace more stressful for you and your coworkers. You and your coworkers can look to each other and agree that your boss’ beating will continue until morale improves.
Another example is the former United States education system. Did you know that, despite the eighth amendment protecting citizens from “cruel and unusual punishment,” this doesn’t apply to students? Even before 1977, teachers could punish their students. Today, in 19 states, corporal punishment is lawful in public and private schools and can be punished from kindergarten to high school. That means high school seniors who are legal adults can be spanked by school officials. With this take on negative reinforcement, along with the way the Department of Education is always trying to raise average scores and create safe spaces for students, is arguably an act of letting the beatings continue until morale improves.
Can I Use Idioms If I Don’t Know Where It Came From?
Is it appropriate to use an idiom if you don’t understand the historical context behind it? Yes, to an extent. Unlike allusions, where a phrase refers to a well-known story, part of the meaning of historical idioms are also commonplace or it’s easy to derive its meaning without knowing the historical background. By listening to the context of the conversation and the imagery the idiom provokes, it may be possible for you or the listener to understand the meaning without historical context.
However, should you be using idioms? If you are speaking on a professional level, with someone who may not likely understand or derive the figurative meaning of an idiom, or with someone whose native language isn’t English, it might be best to just say what you mean.