Dunce, dismal, disaster…it’s been one of those weeks.
As we approach the denouement of the debacle that is Alaska’s political season this year I’m left with far too much time to contemplate our dystopic future. And since I’ve already spoken here about the first word that constantly comes to mind of late—demagogue—today features a trio of other d-words that typify the time and some of its cast of characters.
Let’s start with one of the words most commonly (and reasonably) being thrown around in Alaska right now: dunce. Now used to refer to a dolt or—at its most charitable—a radically slow learner, dunce originated as an eponym for followers of the great Scottish thinker John Duns Scotus (thus ending speculation that th e word dunce and Alaska’s governor’s family name have an etymological connection). Followers of Duns Scotus at least had good reason for their admiration; Scotus was a justly-admired philosopher and theologian who, among other things, explained in a way fundamental to much of Christianity today, the idea of the Immaculate Conception, logically demonstrating how Mary could both conceive without sin and, like all flawed human beings, need redemption too.
The Scotists–often called Duns’ Disciples or Duns men (don’t @ me about the gendering, this was the late 13th century!)—held sway until the Reformation when their kind of lengthy logical justification—or hairsplitting if that’s how you roll—fell out of favor (not least because none were masters of the philosophical subtleties as Scotus was). Capital-D-Duns became minuscule-d-duns as it was more generically applied…first to those who were too fond of book learning and without what the reigning humanists considered insight, such as when John Lyly wrote in 1578 that:
If one bee harde in conceiuing, they pronounce him a dowlte, if giuen to study, they proclayme him a duns.
And then to the slow-witted more generally, as when Frances Thynne recorded in the Holinshead Chronicles in 1587 that:
…now in our age it is growne to be a common prouerbe in derision, to call such a person as is senselesse or without learning a Duns, which is as much as a foole.
But it might be Ambrose Bierce who captured the contemporary meaning of dunce best in his Devil’s Dictionary entry for the synonymous dullards, when he wrote that
The secret of their power is their insensibility to blows; tickle them with a bludgeon and they laugh with a platitude.
If this daymare brought on by a group that when not fleeing their duties assembles merely to dissemble makes your days feel dismal, you are right, both in principle (kudos to you for differentiating yourself from them by having some) and etymologically. Dismal originated as a noun—the dismal—referring to days of misfortune, which came from the old French phrase dis mals (bad days), which came from the Latin dies mali (evil days).
These days—two of them for each month—were literally marked on calendars as unlucky days (and were also known as dies Aegyptiaci, the Egyptian Days, because they were supposedly first calculated by Egyptian astronomers).
Starting in the late 16th century—and certainly in this political season—dismal’s extended sense as a reference to things which cause dejection or depression is on constant display. And I’d submit that another of dismal’s meanings—as a noun to describe tracts of literally swampy lands—is due for a metaphorical revival. As Christopher Hitchens was said to have said, though I’ve had no luck tracking down the source:
How dismal it is to see present day Americans yearning for the very orthodoxy that their country was founded to escape.
Another word used to describe those original dismal days is the oddly euphonious word disaster which, despite its similarly dark meaning shares no roots with dismal. Disaster wended its way to us from the Italian disastro which literally means ill-starred, the dis- prefix being used here much like the english mis- prefix is, to indicate something negative (as in words we must have constantly at the ready right now such as mistaken, misleading, misguided, misinformed, and misbegotten) + the familiar astro from the Latin for star…though you would be forgiven for wondering if the astro as applied in contemporary time would be better spelled with two Ss.
As you might surmise from its history disaster, though of different beginnings than dismal, was similarly borne of astrological concerns. Those ill-starred days were literally so, based on divination not that much different in kind from the dogmatic frothing that is increasingly a favorite of prognosticating politicians.
Incidentally, you might also consider the word consider itself, similarly rooted in astrology, likely coming from considerare, to look closely at something, which is formed from the Latin sidera or stars. So, to consider something was—and should be—to treat it with the attention and reverence you would when ruminating on the stars (not that such consideration means much in Alaska right now where the political firmament rests just 6′-7" plus a limp gray would-be pompadour off the ground).
Life sometimes eclipses satire in funny ways (funny odd, not funny ha-ha), which makes Christopher Buckley’s satirical 2008 novel Supreme Courtship feel prescient for all kinds of reasons…if you can stomach that kind of thing right now I recommend it. But it’s Buckley’s timeless observation about arrogant ineptitude that strikes—and is too often found—closest to home.
How many times
had those awful words – "I know what I’m doing" – been uttered throughout history as prelude to disaster?