Dear Word Detective: An acquaintance of mine related that he had provided “moral support” to a friend in need. I like to think I am a person of sound morals, but it seems to me that “morale support” would be a more accurate description of the act. So how about it? Are “moral” and “morale” related? And if not, how in the world did the phrase “moral support” come about? — Steve Ford.
Morals? How quaint, Mister Bond. Here I sit behind my vast desk, petting my peerless and remarkably obese white cat, and you speak as if these “morals” of yours will stop me in my ruthless march to control the world’s supply of adjectives.
Speaking of obese white cats, I read an article the other day about the tiny camera-equipped drones, controlled with an iPhone app, that are now available for a few hundred bucks to regular (if somewhat pallid and weedy) buyers. A perceptive commenter pointed out that in recent years, thanks to such technology, the cost of being a super-villain has fallen dramatically, meaning that we should expect a bumper crop of suburban Ernst Blofelds vamping on their neighbors. I guess I’d better hurry up and finish my death ray.
“Moral” and “morale” are not only related in origin and usage, but so intertwined that they come very close to being the same word. Apart from that silent “e” at the end of “morale,” the most noticeable difference between the two words is that the stress is on the first syllable in “moral” and on the second in “morale.”
It all began with the Latin word “mor” or “mos,” which meant “custom or habit.” The plural of “mor” was “mores” (pronounced “more-ays,” like multiple nasty eels), which was adopted into English in the late 19th century to mean “the shared customs, attitudes and manners of a community.” The use of “mores” seems to have dropped off in recent years, but back in the 1960s, when half the US was foaming at the mouth over the “immorality” of hippies, you could always turn on PBS and find a serious pseudo-sociological discussion about the “change in American social mores” that all those libidinous potheads represented.
But by the time “mores” came into vogue in the 1890s, the adjective “moral” had already been in common use in English for more than 400 years. “Moral” as an adjective ultimately came from that same Latin “mor,” but English adopted it from the French “moral,” meaning “concerned with questions of right, wrong and ethics” or, of a person, “able to act in a right or wrong way.”
Although in its basic sense the adjective “moral” merely posed the question of a thing or action being right or wrong, in practice the assumption soon became that a “moral” person, book, act, etc., reflected the “good side” of human nature and, optimally, inculcated those values in people, such as children, prone to wander off the path of righteousness if not watched closely. There are some modern vestiges of the original “value-free” use of moral; “moral support” (1852) means support of the mental and emotional kind, rather than actually jumping into the fray, and a “moral victory” (1896) is a defeat in which the loser can be proud of sticking to a moral principle (which may not necessarily be one perceived by others as “morally good”).
“Moral” as a noun appeared in English in the 14th century meaning “a moral principle,” but today it’s almost always used in the plural “morals” to mean a person’s moral beliefs or behavior. Another sense still in use today is that of “a moral lesson or teaching,” the “moral of the story” in many old children’s tales.
The noun “morale” appeared in English in the late 18th century, also drawn from French, where “morale” is the feminine form of the adjective “moral.” It was initially used as a synonym of “moral” in English, but this seems to have been the result of some confusion about the finer shadings of meaning in French, where “morale” has more to do with a person’s emotional state than moral rectitude. Eventually “morale” in English came to mean almost exclusively the state of confidence, optimism, hope or simply contentment in a person or group (“To improve the morale of the entire mercantile community,” 1866). So now we have “morale boosting” (1960), “morale building” (1943) and “morale raising” (1946) to make us feel better about whatever pickle we find ourselves in at the moment.
You could make a case that “moral support” should actually be “morale support,” but I see two problems. One is that “moral support” involves matters of principle, not just the subjective confidence or contentment of the person you’re supporting. I’ve known some utterly unprincipled jerks who seemed to have excellent morale. The real problem, however, is that it’s just too late to change it.