Two accounts have been advanced to explain the origin of the word “dismal”.
Both are plausible, and neither is absolutely certain; therefore the dictionaries usually content themselves by saying, “probably thus and so,” or “origin uncertain,” or the like.
One account connects it with an early English phrase, “in the dismal,” meaning “in the blues, depressed,” and believes it to be derived from the Old French disme, meaning “a tenth,” from Latin decem, ten. It would thus refer to the practice of feudal lords in exacting one-tenth of the harvest produced by their vassals, just as tithes were demanded by the church.
Thus the phrase, “in the dismal,” would indicate such depression as that experienced by people compelled to submit to the cruel extortionate measures of feudal barons at the time when these tithes were to be paid.
The second account ascribes its source to the Latin dies mall, evil days, of the medieval calendar. Such unpropitious days were also known as “Egyptian days,” because their occurrence, it was believed, had been computed by Egyptian astrologers.
These days of misfortune or gloom occurred on January 1 and 25, February 4 and 26, March 1 and 28, April 10 and 20, May 3 and 25, June 10 and 16, July 13 and 22, August 1 and 30, September 3 and 21, October 3 and 22, November 5 and 28, and December 7 and 22. It was considered unlucky to begin any new enterprise upon any one of those days.
In Old French these days were called dis mal, and some scholars contend that it was from this that English dismal was formed.