"Demoralised" = "without morals"?

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Marilynne Robinson, "Is poverty necessary?", Harpers 5/16/2019:

Margaret Thatcher said that the redundant—those on the dole—were “demoralized.” In her dialect group this word doesn’t mean disheartened. It means without morals. An American might put the matter differently, but the attitude is familiar enough.

An American might wonder whether that sense was actually dominant — or even prevalent — in Margaret Thatcher's "dialect group".

The OED supports these doubts — it characterizes the "lacking in moral values" sense as "somewhat archaic" and "chiefly U.S.":

1. Morally corrupted, lacking in moral values; (also) robbed of moral significance or influence. Now somewhat archaic (chiefly U.S.).

1800 S. Spring Disc. on Death G. Washington 10 Shall the sons of science..bless the stars, Jupiter or Minerva or Dame Nature or any other vanities of a demoralized heart as the beneficent author of education?
1816 J. Scott Paris Revisited xi. 401 The demoralized state of the public character.
1883 Harper's Mag. Dec. 81/2 You'd be listening to every word through the key-hole, you're so demoralized!
1961 L. Mumford City in Hist. viii. 242 These are symptoms of the end: magnifications of demoralized power, minifications of life.
1995 Providence (Rhode Island) Jrnl.-Bull. (Nexis) 23 July 1 a Raising children to be self-centered, irresponsible and ultimately demoralized.

And even in the first half of the 20th century, British elite usage seems to be dominated by the "disheartened" meaning. I'm not sure whether this counts as Margaret Thatcher's "dialect group", but Roy Irons (Churchill and the Mad Mullah of Somaliland) quotes British General (and Baron) Hastings Ismay, writing about a 1920 battle:

The word "demoralised" (in the British spelling) is not found in Thatcher's book Statecraft, nor in her memoir Downing Street Years, nor in Andrew Crines et al., The Political Rhetoric and Oratory of Margaret Thatcher. The American spelling "demoralized" isn't found in those works either. But the Margaret Thatcher Foundation offers a "Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them", and a search of that site yields 24 hits. Among the first ten of these, there are eight that clearly mean "disheartened", the sense that Robinson suggests that Thatcher's "dialect group" doesn't use:

[link] The Government have chopped and changed policies; they have created confusion and uncertainty. They have added countless burdens. They have destroyed profits. They have raised the cost of borrowing to intolerable heights. And they have demoralised management and they have sapped the will to work. No wonder investment in industry has slowed to a crawl.

[link] The Prime Minister himself is in no position to rejoice. His Parliamentary programme is in total disarray; and with the failure of his attempt to ram through the Devolution Bill any reason the Nationalists may have had to sustain him in power seems to have vanished. His demoralised backbenchers are not rejoicing. The Labour Party, drifting to the Left, locked in internal feuds, riddled with extremists, crumbling at the edges, is certainly not rejoicing. And the people of Britain see no cause to rejoice as they wearily wait for the opportunity to turn out of office a Government that has been totally discredited.

[link] The events of last week's public expenditure debate are of a kind that we have never seen before. It is true that Governments have been defeated before. But no Government faced with a parliamentary battle, has turned and fled, then claimed: “We were not defeated, we did not vote” . It is as if a demoralised army, when they had lost the day, said: “We cannot have been defeated because we just ran away. We dared not fight, we just surrendered, but of course we were not defeated” . But in effect they were defeated, and a Government that cannot get its major policies through the House of Commons cannot survive.

[link] The Chancellor was wise to give relief to those in the middle management band. There has been no more demoralised group in society than middle management. People in middle management. People in middle management have often seen their pay squeezed and have suffered heavy taxation on that pay. Many in middle management have had their standard of living drop not by 3 per cent. or 4 per cent.—which is the average—but by 20 per cent. or 25 per cent. They, at least, have managed to get some encouragement from the Chancellor's Statement.

[link] Absurd public relations exercises, like the so-called Industrial Strategy, have been used as the cover-up for inertia; for flat output and flat prospects. Management has been demoralised; incentives to build up new wealth hacked away.

[link] Eddison: You took over a demoralised party about three years ago. You've had a string of by-election successes; the latest poll, I think, shows the Conservatives about 10 per cent ahead of Labour. How have you done it? Thatcher: I wouldn't have called it a demoralised party. Every party has setbacks and we had a set back. We were all bitterly disappointed at the result of the last election and I think the history of Britain might have been different if we hadn't lost in February 1974. What we've done is set out what we believed. We're not only interested in politics because we like being MPs.

[link] Finally, what provision will be made to cover the special and vital role of those employees in junior and middle management? The Prime Minister will be aware that a number of them have felt demoralised because they are not involved as much as they might be. He will note that in the German scheme they are not bypassed. There is a special place for them. What special provision will be made for junior and middle management in participation?

[link] There used to be in this country, a Socialism which valued people. It had dignity and it had warmth. Its methods were those of the collective, of putting all decisions to the centre, which was why it was not our creed, but its aims to raise the living standards of the people were the same as ours. Well, what a world away that is from the officious jargon filled intolerant Socialism practised by Labour these last few years. What a world away it is. What a world away that sort of brotherhood is from flying pickets, from kangaroo courts, the merciless use of the closed shop power, and all the other ugly apparatus which has been strapped like a harness on our people and our country, turning worker against worker, and society against itself. I'm reminded of Cromwell 's words to another demoralised faction. He said to them, to some of the then Members of Parliament, ‘You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed and are yourselves become the greatest grievance.’ That is what we say of the Labour party today [applause].

There's one example where "demoralised" seems to mean "disheartened" (…"begin to lose confidence in the spirit of your country") but where Thatcher also talks about the country "declining spiritually and morally":

[link] You can't go on letting a country decline economically without finding something else: that it declines spiritually and morally as well. If you no longer have confidence in your country to solve its economic problems, very soon you begin to lose confidence in the spirit of your country and you find all kinds of other things happening as well. I believe that's what happened this last winter. None of us ever expected to see some of the strikes we saw. We said those things can't happen in Britain, but I believe it was because some of our economic failures had so demoralised us that we got a decline of a sort we never expected to see here.

And there's one example (among the ten) where "demoralised" arguably means "without morals":

[link] GULAG was the consequence of socialism. It was not the work of one man. It only happened because socialism demoralised the whole nation, replaced the individual conscience by the party, right and wrong by what was good for the revolution.

Someone else may have the time to check the rest of the Thatcher Foundation hits, but those ten examples are enough to convince me that Robinson mischaracterized Thatcher's "dialect group".



  1. Rob Grayson said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 5:23 am

    As a Brit born in 1970, and who therefore came of age during the Thatcher years, I can honestly say I've never heard "demoralised" used to mean "without morals". This seems to me to be an entirely spurious interpretation.

  2. Picky said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 5:57 am

    It’s a new use to me, too (BrE speaker). As to the Thatcher Foundation examples, though, one wonders how many of them were composed by Mrs T herself, At any rate they are admirable rhetoric.

  3. Laura MORLAND said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 5:58 am

    A convincing corpus!

    Couldn't help but notice that one of the supporting definitions for the Harper's article is another (136-year-old) Harper's article. Must be a Harper's thing:

    1883 Harper's Mag. Dec. 81/2 You'd be listening to every word through the key-hole, you're so demoralized!

  4. Annie Gottlieb said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 6:39 am

    Good callout. Nonetheless, it's a good article. Demoralizing to see that bit of propaganda in it.

  5. RP said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 7:07 am

    For "demoralized" and similar words, British dictionaries accept both spellings, and in fact Oxford gives precedence to "z".

    However, the myth of "z" as an Americanism is widespread in Britain and so many people consider only "s" to be correct British usage that maybe it is becoming so (because if a view about correctness is sufficiently widespread then perhaps the minority preference may be considered nonstandard). Prince Charles was recently condemned by the press for using a "z" spelling, and when his defence was explained on the Radio 4 Today programme, the presenter expressed astonishment.

  6. Robbie said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 7:27 am

    I've never seen "demoralised" used to mean "without morals". It seems to me that Robinson is either misunderstanding the quotation, or has a specific political itch to scratch.

    If anyone here has ever been unemployed for a long time, and dependent on government handouts — and especially during the extremely bleak conditions of 1970s Britain — you'll know that demoralisation is exactly what happens. You stop caring about yourself and your future. You stop looking for a job because you believe you'll never find one. You might stop bothering to leave the house at all, or even get out of bed. In the '70s this kind of depression was called "dole fever". There was a huge underclass of long-term unemployed people who had given up trying to work, and this was exactly what Thatcher was addressing.

  7. Kenny Easwaran said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 7:43 am

    I had never heard of this alternative meaning to the word "demoralized". So it's interesting to see that Thatcher used it at least once. Perhaps the fact that this usage is even possible for Thatcher confused Robinson into thinking that it was dominant for Thatcher. I was thinking this might suggest that Thatcher's usages might always carry the association, but I see that the other 9 examples use several where she is referring to her own political party or other groups that she wouldn't likely attribute a lack of morals to.

  8. Theophylact said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 7:58 am

    Seems to me that the question is whether you think of it as coming from "moral", or from "morale". Most responses here (mine too) suggest the latter.

  9. krogerfoot said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 8:04 am

    @RP, I (an American) always thought that the -ize spelling was entirely extinct in Britain, though it seems obvious that a lot of "American" spellings must have been holdovers from an earlier British usage. The one anomaly I can think of, "advertise," is consistently spelled as "advertize" by the Anglo-Irish pundit Andrew Sullivan, who as a longtime resident of the U.S. must surely have noticed that no Americans render it that way.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 9:14 am

    It so happens that the current issue of The New Yorker contains an article by James Wood that begins by quoting an assertion by Marilynne Robinson which Wood immediately proceeds to demolish with facts.

    [(myl) "If God Is Dead, Your Time Is Everything", New Yorker 5/13/2019:

    At a recent conference on belief and unbelief hosted by the journal Salmagundi, the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson confessed to knowing some good people who are atheists, but lamented that she has yet to hear “the good Atheist position articulated.” She explained, “I cannot engage with an atheism that does not express itself.”

    She who hath ears to hear, let her hear.


  11. Ross Presser said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 9:30 am

    I wonder what Robinson's source for the Thatcher quote was.

  12. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 12:21 pm

    I'm an American who edits copy for a website aimed primarily at an American audience, but all five of the writers are British. One of my assigned tasks is to make sure all articles conform to U.S. spelling and usage. I've been doing this more than a year and I've edited nearly 1,400 articles so far. I haven't seen a single case in which a British writer used "z" rather than "s."

    BTW, I'm still not used to being called a sub-editor and I'm still a bit thrown off when a writer tells me that an article is "ready for subbing."

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 2:05 pm

    Unclear what Robinson might think Thatcher's "dialect group" was in any event, since (as was ubiquitously common for the upwardly mobile in her generation in the UK) she largely lost her childhood dialect and shifted (presumably aided and perhaps to some degree pressured by her time at Oxford) into a deracinated sort of prestige variety. Which is perhaps a pity, not just because (as at least a few of her more romantically Conservative colleagues might have told her) standardization and homogenization are inherently suspect, but because according to what I read on the internet the Lincolnshire accent is both "underrated" and "the sexiest in the UK." https://thetab.com/2016/05/18/lincolnshire-accent-most-irresistible-90574

    There was one famous linguistic incident during her first term as Prime Minister in which she briefly slipped out of her socialization into talking posh and accused a prominent Labourite of being "frit," which is a non-posh synonym (in her childhood dialect) for "frightened."

  14. ardj said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 3:17 pm

    @RP as a footnote, the OED 2nd ed, (all I have access to) suggests that ‘demoralize’, spelt thus, was introduced to English by Noah Webster himself, in a pamphlet of c. 1793.

    @krogerfoot: Mr Andreww Sullivan’s usage of ‘advertize’ is up to him (and possibly his Irishness), but the word in English comes from the French ‘divertir’ and accordingly is only rarely to be seen in its inappropriate ‘z’ form

    @Cory Robinson: the article by James Wood is excellent: but so is Marylynne Robinson’s essay in the June Harpers: https://harpers.org/archive/2019/06/is-poverty-necessary-marilynne-robinson/

  15. david said,

    May 17, 2019 @ 10:28 pm

    I had not noticed this word in my experience before reading this entry but then i ran into it in Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE (2011) where he refers to the jihadists being “thoroughly demoralized by Sokolov’s policy of firing high-velocity rounds down ito their muzzle flashes.

    It seems to mean decreasing their morale.

  16. John Walden said,

    May 18, 2019 @ 1:57 am

    The explanation of Thatcher's use of 'redundant' doesn't ring true either. In BrE 'being made redundant' has the very specific meaning of 'being permanently let go with sometimes quite generous compensation when the job no longer exists'. It's not the same as 'on the dole' (receiving unemployment pay) although obviously the former can lead to the latter. It would be unremarkable if she had said 'redundancy is demoralising' if she meant what she probably meant by both terms.

  17. GH said,

    May 18, 2019 @ 3:33 am

    Most spellcheckers set to British English (or "English (UK)", as Microsoft puts it) will mark the "-ize" endings as incorrect, so I doubt they can survive as an optional British form.

  18. RP said,

    May 18, 2019 @ 7:01 am

    @GH, Microsoft Word accepts both "-ise" and "-ize". I thought of attempting to check whether this was true of "most" spellcheckers but decided not to bother.

    As I said before, it seems to be only a small minority of British people who use the "z" spellings these days – I used to, but got sick of having to explain that it wasn't incorrect; maybe everyone else did too and so it died out thanks to our weakness – so there may come a point where it is such a minority usage that it is no longer considered OK. Perhaps that point has arrived. On the other hand, in our society we generally accept the dictionaries as an authority on such matters. The Oxford dictionaries have always given precedence to "z" (I grew up with the Concise Oxford Dictionary, which at the time showed the "z" spellings exclusively, with a small note in the introduction indicating that "s" was also permissible but that to save space they hadn't shown it anywhere). Collins Dictionary gives precedence to "z" as well; "s" exists only a cross-reference. Even in Cambridge, which says "UK usually 'realise'" (for example), the actual headword is "realize". In fact even Chambers lists the "z" first (the headword is "realize or realise" in Chambers 21st Dictionary online).

    By contrast, spellings such as "honour" and "centre" are always shown as the main spellings in British dictionaries, with "honor" and "center" given as exclusively American forms.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    May 18, 2019 @ 7:18 am

    One thing that intrigues me about this thread is that at least two contributors have referred to Mrs Thatcher as "Thatcher" (I am not referring to usages such as "the Thatcher years", which are well established). For me, as a Briton, it would be unthinkable to omit the "Mrs" when referring to the late Prime Minister as a person, so I wonder whether those who refer to her as "Thatcher" are not British. Not for the first time I think how useful it would be if all contributions to a thread could be automatically be flagged with the nationality of the contributor.

  20. Jim Ley said,

    May 18, 2019 @ 8:22 am

    I have no problem using the simple "Thatcher" when referring to her as a person, and have heard the usage often in other fellow Brits. I think you might find it split on age or political affinity to the woman.

  21. Levantine said,

    May 18, 2019 @ 10:35 am

    Phillip Taylor, I am British and refer to her by surname only. I assume you don’t find “Churchill” remarkable, so I’m curious to know why you feel that “Thatcher” sounds odd.

  22. Ian Preston said,

    May 18, 2019 @ 11:10 am

    None of the statements reproduced from the Thatcher Foundation site are actually about redundancy and welfare dependence but there are a few examples on the Thatcher Foundation site where she does discuss demoralisation with specific reference to unemployment and welfare.

    For example, in an interview in 1983

    I do not know anyone who is heartless about unemployment. I think to go out day after day to try to find a job and not succeed must be most demoralizing not only for the person who is searching but also for their family. Fortunately, a lot of people find jobs.

    Then in 1994

    Mercifully, these days we look after those who are unemployed and seeking work well, and so we do not have the physical misery that occurred before. It is, nevertheless, a very demoralizing situation for those who are searching for work and we each and all of us try to do as much as we can to mitigate it, you know with better training schemes, with a certain amount of what we call a Community Enterprise Programme and various programmes particularly for the long-term unemployed, to get them some kind of work for the community which they would not otherwise have.

    And from a speech after the end of her prime ministership in 1991

    The great economic advances which capitalism has made possible have allowed us to provide better welfare for those who cannot cope for themselves. But in doing so it has led indirectly to that very dependency culture which is weakening our countries and demoralising the poor. Of course, there will always be a point at which providing welfare benefits significantly diminishes the recipients' desire to regain economic and social independence. That can't be totally avoided. But the scale of the problem in some place today is quite new.

    I would read all of these as using 'demoralising' to mean 'disheartening', though I suppose the last is less clear than the first two. As with most BrE speakers responding above, no other meaning would have occurred to me.

  23. John Walden said,

    May 18, 2019 @ 11:26 am

    I didn't give it a second thought; I am also British, look how I spelt 'demoralising' and 'spelt', and I too refer to all British prime ministers, and US presidents for that matter, by surname only.

    I suspect French, German and any other country's PMs and presidents get the same treatment. And being a woman changes nothing: Merkel, Arden, Bandaranaike, Meir, McAleese and Gillard all are surname only.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    May 18, 2019 @ 4:39 pm

    Levantine — "I assume you don’t find “Churchill” remarkable, so I’m curious to know why you feel that “Thatcher” sounds odd". Your assumption is completely correct. As to why I find "Thatcher" odd and "Mrs Thatcher" natural, I am only one generation removed from those who would as a matter of course doff their hats when greeting a lady. At school (grammar school, an entirely male establishment) I and my peers were addressed by surname as a matter of course by the staff, and we tended to adopt the same convention when addressing our peers until we became close friends. In the services, other ranks were invariably addressed solely by surname. But in my idiolect, and I very much suspect in the idiolects of the majority of my contemporaries, ladies were always afforded their courtesy titles. At primary school, a male teacher may well have been referred to solely by his surname when speaking of him disrespectfully to one's fellow pupils, but no matter how scornful the comment, a lady teacher would be referred to as "Miss X" (or "Mrs X") rather than just "X". I am aware that those who found the late PM's style of governance unacceptable may well have referred to her scathingly as just "Thatcher", but those of us on the other side of the political divide who believed (and continue to believe) that she did her very best for the country would, I am convinced, rarely if ever omit the courtesy of prefixing her surname by "Mrs".

  25. Levantine said,

    May 18, 2019 @ 5:33 pm

    Phillip Taylor, thanks for this explanation. For me at least, surnames are the usual way of referring to political figures, regardless of their gender or my personal feelings about them.

  26. RP said,

    May 19, 2019 @ 5:56 am

    Levantine, same for me, often. But I will tend to use the full name on first mention if the person isn't a current political figure or if there's any chance my interlocutor won't have heard of them or won't remember who they are. To take John Walden's "Merkel, Arden, Bandaranaike, Meir, McAleese and Gillard all are surname only" – there is no way I'm just going to launch into "as Meir once remarked …". There are lots of people with similar names to Meir/Mair/Mare, the name is also a monosyllable and eays to mishear (cf. "May") and Golda Meir isn't necessarily a figure everyone is familiar with nowadays in the UK. Even in the context of speaking about Israeli politics I would probably use her full name on first mention at least. Even with Angela Merkel, who is a current figure and well known, there's a possibility (though not definite) I'd use her full name when first bringing her up.

  27. Levantine said,

    May 19, 2019 @ 12:40 pm

    RP, I’ll also give the full name on first mention when required, so we’re in agreement on that point too.

    There is, however, one figure I treat differently, and that’s Hillary Clinton. Like so many others (admirers and detractors alike), I tend to refer to her by first name only, which I assume I (we) wouldn’t do if not for the surname’s association with her husband.

  28. Trogluddite said,

    May 19, 2019 @ 3:16 pm

    "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, Out, Out!" was a common refrain of student and trades union protesters during her time as PM; and, while probably less common, I did hear supporters refer to her as "Maggie", as did the tabloid press of all political persuasions. I don't recall this happening to the same extent with any other PM of my lifetime, including current PM Theresa May. I suspect that a mix of strength of feeling, gender bias, and ease of pronunciation all play a part in this ("Thatcher, Thatcher, Thatcher!" might have resulted in rather a lot of unintentional spitting at demonstrations!)

  29. Joshua K. said,

    May 19, 2019 @ 10:46 pm

    I suspect that Robinson is engaging in the practice, common among many political movements, whereby the statements of one's opponents are interpreted in the most hostile way, wrenching those statements out of context if need be, while the statements of one's allies are interpreted in the most charitable sense possible.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 20, 2019 @ 2:17 pm

    Here's a recent UK political cartoon which is some evidence that referring to the current PM as "Mrs May" remains idiomatic for some BrEng speakers probably younger than Philip Taylor.

    For Margaret Thatcher, there's a further complication about whether calling her "Mrs Thatcher" is right given her subsequent reconfiguration as "Lady Thatcher," although of course pretty much everything that makes her interesting enough to have occasion to speak about occurred pre-peerage.

  31. Leo said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 5:09 am

    Even if she had, and retained, a "dialect" (as suggested by her use of the word frit), the meaning of journalistic words such as demoralised is surely not connected to regional dialects anyway.

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