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Just For Fun: Enough With The Dismal Science Jokes Already…

May 11th, 2010 · 6 Comments
Just For Fun

Yeah yeah, I know, economics is the dismal science, yada yada…but did you ever stop and wonder where that phrase came from?

“The dismal science” is a derogatory alternative name for economics devised by the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. The term is an inversion of the phrase “gay science,” meaning “life-enhancing knowledge”, a reference to the technical skills of song and verse writing. This was a familiar expression at the time, and was later adopted as the title of a book by Nietzsche (see The Gay Science).

It is often stated that Carlyle gave economics the nickname “the dismal science” as a response to the late 18th century writings of The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who grimly predicted that starvation would result as projected population growth exceeded the rate of increase in the food supply.

(Sidenote: Does this mean that economists were wrong in their predictions even back then? =P)

Wow, I don’t know which of the “gay science” or the “dismal science” is the lesser of the two evils in terms of naming- one is outdated and the other is just depressing. All I know is that people seem to really latch onto the dismal science bit, whereas I haven’t heard the gay science thing thrown around in quite some time. For example, via ECONJEFF:

Dear cartoonists: You are really not helping my marketing. xoxo, econgirl

Tags: Just For Fun

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Justin Ross // May 11, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Actually, Carlyle’s objection was that the economic theory undermined arguments for “lesser races.” As Levy and Peart write:

    While this story is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact—that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty—that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.”

    The cite for this can be found here:

    We should wear “the dismal science” label as a badge of honor!

  • 2 Rev. Pfloyd // May 11, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    Well I applaud Justin for digging up that little-known fact.

    And I want that badge too.

  • 3 Steve_0 // May 11, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    It’s not that little know among Austrian economic circles. Well…. ok. Little known.

  • 4 jody // May 12, 2010 at 9:27 am

    This is one reason I love this site. It is fun and accessible to those of us who majored in the “Gay Sciences” (Liberal Arts?). I took a whopping two courses in Economics in college and finally understood why the government can build all the nice, free public housing it wants and still make no significant impact on the problem of poverty. I like my economic reality with a spoonful of sugar….

  • 5 Dr. Goose // May 13, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Not only do I agree with those who would wear The Dismal Science as a badge of honor, but – as a goose – I would like to bring it a little more down.

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