The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is it “moral,” not “morale,” support?

Q: I’m puzzled by the phrase “moral support.” Why do we use the word “moral” here when “morale” is being supported? Was it once “morale support”?

A: No, it’s been “moral support” ever since the expression first showed up in English in the mid-19th century.

This may be because there was a brief period during the 19th century when the adjective “moral” could refer to morale.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that sense of “moral” is now obsolete or rare, though it wasn’t in 1852, the date of the OED’s first citation for “moral support.”

The dictionary’s entry for “moral support” doesn’t specifically mention morale boosting, however. It defines the phrase as simply “support or help which is psychological rather than physical.”

Now for a brief history of these upstanding words. Both have their roots in Old French and ultimately in the Latin moralis (having to do with morals, manners, or customs).

The word “moral,” which is accented on the first syllable, came into English in the 1300s. It’s both an adjective and a noun. 

As an adjective, it generally means something like “ethical” (as in “He is studying moral philosophy”).

As a noun it means a lesson or a maxim (as in “Does this book have a moral?”). The plural “morals” means ethics or principles (“Sharks have no morals”).

“Morale,” which is accented on the second syllable, is exclusively a noun and came into English much later, in the 1700s.

As the OED explains, it first meant moral principles or practice, but it acquired its modern sense in the early 1800s.

As used today, the OED says, “morale” means “the mental or emotional state (with regard to confidence, hope, enthusiasm, etc.) of a person or group engaged in some activity; degree of contentment with one’s lot or situation.”

This is an example: “When a team loses a game, its morale suffers.”

Now here’s a sentence using both words: “The moral of the story is that living a moral life can bolster one’s morale.”

It’s been said, according to the OED, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and other sources, that the Roman orator Cicero coined moralis as the Latin counterpart of the Greek ethikos (“ethical”).

Cicero, by the way, was a champion word-minter.

He’s credited with coining the Latin versions of many English words and phrases, including “alter ego,” “beatitude,” “evolution,” “favor,” “intelligence,” “irony,” “logic,” “magnum opus,” “non sequitur,” “notion,” “quality,” “religion,” and “republic.”

Inventions like those inspired the Italians to coin a word—one we borrowed—for a learned guide or mentor: “cicerone.”

Check out our books about the English language