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

Examples of dismal in a Sentence

The show was a dismal failure. The team's record is dismal.
Recent Examples on the Web Meanwhile, dismal results for Germany's governing parties have dented Chancellor Olaf Scholz's authority and could prompt even more infighting. Danielle Wallace, Fox News, 10 June 2024 Biden’s reputation on TikTok was dismal in the summer of 2020, according to Daniel Daks, who consulted for the 2020 campaign and runs a private social media consulting firm called Palette MGMT. Tribune News Service, The Mercury News, 4 June 2024 Now he’s holed up in his family home, which abuts the dismal local zoo, where his father is strung out and intent on drinking himself to death. Jessica Kiang, Variety, 21 May 2024 In Cold Climate Gardening, blogger Kathy Purdy in upstate New York reports a rather dismal performance due to late spring frosts that damage leaves and buds and cool summer temps that inhibit flower production. Steve Bender, Southern Living, 20 May 2024 See all Example Sentences for dismal 

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 25 Jun. 2024.

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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