Dismal science vs. gay science: What?

In writing yesterday about economics as the “dismal science,” of course I Googled the phrase. I always imagined it originated with economists themselves—tired of people scoffing at their talk of “invisible hands,” tired of nagging, “Hey, maybe we should stop having so many kids. How will we feed them all?”

But no—even economists, it seems, take pride in their profession. The “dismal science” wasn’t self-identification at all; it was an insult. And after reading about the origin of the phrase, I’m pretty sure I’ll never use it again.

Thomas Carlyle, a nineteenth century Scottish historian, coined the term because economists’ arguments against slavery annoyed him. So he wrote a pamphlet in 1849 calling economics:

Not a “gay science,” I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.

We’re all agreed that Carlyle was a dismal excuse for a human being, right?

But what is this other phrase—”gay science”? I’ve never been much interested in science, but this merits further research.

What makes science gay?

Nietzsche wrote a book called The Gay Science, but more than thirty years after Carlyle used the term. Still the Wikipedia page for Nietzche’s book points to a French phrase, gai saber, used by troubadours in Provence to describe the art of writing poetry.Poems of courtly love (not Courtney Love, pictured)—the opposite of the dismal science

Now, when we’re talking troubadours, those poets of courtly love—as distinctly opposed to Courtney Love—we’re talking old. Like nearly one thousand years ago old. So old that the revival happened nearly 800 years ago—when a bunch of dudes in Toulouse formed a society to promote that kind of verse. For reasons not immediately apparent to me, these Frenchmen gave their organization an Italian name: the Consistori del Gay Saber awarded its first poetry prize in 1324. The name lives on today in Gai Saber, a band described as “an Italian folk group”—although the lively song you hear when you land on their website sounds more like Latin dance music to me.

If an aversion to slavery makes one “dismal,” then by all means count me in. I believe firmly in freedom, and in getting paid for one’s work. But I will also gladly ally myself with the “gay science.” Good to know it exists.

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