dis·​mal ˈdiz-məl How to pronounce dismal (audio)
: showing or causing gloom (see gloom entry 2 sense 2) or depression
the dismal prison twilightCharles Dickens
: lacking merit : particularly bad
a dismal performance
obsolete : disastrous, dreadful
dismally adverb
dismalness noun

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The Evil History of Dismal

In late antiquity, certain days each month, called “Egyptian days,” were regarded as inauspicious, probably as a relic of ancient Egyptian belief. By the Middle Ages, people took them to be anniversaries of the Biblical plagues in Egypt. There were 24 such days per year, and in Anglo-French they were called collectively dismal (from Latin dies mali, “evil days”), and this word was borrowed into Middle English. In time the “evil days” sense was forgotten and dismal was simply taken to mean “disastrous.” The noun dismal, meaning “swamp,” goes back to the 1700s when the marshy region in Virginia and North Carolina was named the Great Dismal Swamp.

Choose the Right Synonym for dismal

dismal, dreary, bleak, gloomy, cheerless, desolate mean devoid of cheer or comfort.

dismal indicates extreme and utterly depressing gloominess.

dismal weather

dreary, often interchangeable with dismal, emphasizes discouragement resulting from sustained dullness or futility.

a dreary job

bleak suggests chill, dull, and barren characteristics that utterly dishearten.

the bleak years of the depression

gloomy often suggests lack of hope or promise.

gloomy war news

cheerless stresses absence of anything cheering.

a drab and cheerless office

desolate adds an element of utter remoteness or lack of human contact to any already disheartening aspect.

a desolate outpost

Example Sentences

The show was a dismal failure. The team's record is dismal.
Recent Examples on the Web The bank joins peers like Bank of America, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, all of which have announced layoffs thanks to a dismal forecast for corporate deals and IPOs this year. Q.ai - Powering A Personal Wealth Movement, Forbes, 3 May 2023 By June 2022, the retailer ousted Tritton after two back-to-back quarters of dismal sales. Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press, 24 Apr. 2023 Despite the dismal weather, this was a national holiday and an unforgettable celebration. Dr. Tessa Dunlop, Town & Country, 2 Apr. 2023 The winds felled trees and downed power lines, and driving was a dismal experience across Santa Cruz County. Hayley Smith, Los Angeles Times, 21 Mar. 2023 But after seven long seasons and 12 dismal losses, the Chicago Bulls finally shook off a lingering curse Monday night — beating Joel Embiid. Julia Poe, Chicago Tribune, 20 Mar. 2023 Diaz resigned just two years into a four-year term in December following his party’s dismal showing in the 2022 election. Steven Lemongello, Orlando Sentinel, 25 Feb. 2023 Despite Japanese propaganda and the tragedy in Oregon to the contrary, the program had been a dismal failure. David Reamer | Alaska History, Anchorage Daily News, 20 Feb. 2023 The film, from Open Road and Briarcliff Entertainment, barely cracked the top 10, landing in ninth place with a dismal $1.9 million over the weekend and $3 million through Monday from 2,281 locations. Rebecca Rubin, Variety, 19 Feb. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'dismal.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English, from dismal, noun, days marked as unlucky in medieval calendars, from Anglo-French, from Medieval Latin dies mali, literally, evil days

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 3

Time Traveler
The first known use of dismal was in the 15th century

Dictionary Entries Near dismal

Cite this Entry

“Dismal.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dismal. Accessed 1 Jun. 2023.

Kids Definition


dis·​mal ˈdiz-məl How to pronounce dismal (audio)
: very gloomy and depressing : dreary
dismal weather
: lacking in merit : particularly bad
a dismal performance
dismally adverb

Middle English dismal "days marked on a calendar as unlucky," from early French (same meaning), from Latin dies mali, "evil days"

Word Origin
At the time of the Roman Empire, certain days of each month, called "Egyptian days," were regarded as inauspicious. These days of ill omen were probably a relic of ancient Egyptian belief, but their source had been forgotten by the Middle Ages. People then took them to be anniversaries of the plagues visited on Egypt in Moses' time—though there were 24 Egyptian days in the year and only ten biblical plagues. In medieval French the Egyptian days were called collectively dismal (from Latin dies mali, "evil days"), and this word was borrowed into Middle English. Any day of the 24 was a dismal day, but the original sense "evil days" was forgotten, and dismal was simply taken as an adjective meaning "disastrous."

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