This is going to be bad. Well, hopefully reading our word of the day won’t be a bad experience, but this is often how those with a pessimistic disposition see things. Surely, coming down from the glamour and excitement of the holidays does not help, nor does it help that we are in the midst of a cold and snowy season; but there is often more to pessimism than simply seasonal moods. Regardless of contributing factors, what about the word itself?
Though our word, pessimism, comes directly from the French pessimisme, its true origin is found in the Latin (pessimus), where it means “worst or bottom-most.” Contrary to optimism, pessimism is, simply stated, the state of mind or psychological disposition which contends that, regardless of scenario, the worst outcome will likely happen. In a philosophical sense, as expressed by the likes of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Dostoyevsky, pessimism involves deflating the overly aspirational nature of some philosophies by realising potential negative Outcomes.
The first known use of the word pessimism occurs in the letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, in 1794 directly adapted it from French, writing that, “’Tis almost as bad as Lovell’s farm house—and that would be at least a thousand fathoms deep in the Dead Sea of Pessimism.” 40 years after being introduced, pessimism began to be seen in English as being an extreme to be balanced, as the Edinburgh Review, noted that “Violent extremes either way—optimism or pessimism..must be pernicious.” By 1878, commenting on philosophical pessimism, Edward Dowden noted its benefits, stating that: “The pessimism of our own day aspires to be constructive.”
Most of the time, we think of pessimism using a negative connotation; however, much like in the philosophical genre, there can be benefits to pessimism. For example, a May 2015 poll in the UK showed that a clear majority (51%) of British adults feel that today’s youth will have a lower quality of life when they reach adulthood, which is a jump of 16% from 2011 and a quadrupling of the 12% recorded in 2003. While this poll does indicate pessimism across a majority of the UK on this issue, the simple fact that the issue is realised, means that there is a greater change of action being taken to correct it.
Conversely, an overly optimistic view might not realise the problem, which would prevent any action being taken to correct or prevent it. So, all pessimism is not necessarily bad, but, much like the alcohol we drank on New Year’s Eve, we have got to know when enough is enough.