Miserabilism: A pessimistic philosophy; a consistently miserable outlook. From miserable combined with the philosophical suffix -ism.
I recently heard miserabilism in an unexpected context: the annual awards lunch hosted by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. (I attended as the guest of a client.) Before we got to the awards, we were treated, or subjected, to a long state-of-the-city presentation by an economist from Los Angeles, which is 370 miles south of Oakland. As it happens, Dan Cohen was in the audience, too.
Miserabilism comes from German Miserabilismus, coined in 1880 by the German philosopher Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann. Von Hartmann contended that miserabilism was the most dangerous kind of pessimism, writes Dennis N. Kenedy Darnoi in The Unconscious and Eduard von Hartmann:
It is wrathful pessimism in so far as it is pure Situations-Schmerz, or pain resulting from avoidable subjective or objective conditions; it is quietistic pessimism in so far as it believes in the impossibility of improving the individual’s lot as well as that of mankind’s.
In the 20th century, miserabilism (or its French counterpart, misérabilisme) became the name of an artistic tendency. The OED cites a 1972 book, 20th-century Mind:
The thinness of these figures [in Giacometti’s sculpture] also seemed to be an expression of existentialist misérabilisme.
And more recently miserabilism has been used to wry effect, as in Jon Caramanica’s 2011 review for the New York Times of the SoHo clothing boutique Surface to Air. Caramanica wrote that he’d admired a certain “revision of the traditional army sweater” that the shop was selling:
I bought it, naturally. It would go great with the purple pants with a slight waxed effect, or the twill-like grayish blue denim that suggests the long-awaited union of German miserabilism and the American Southwest.
The Latin root of miserabilism is miserabilis, which means “pitiable” or “wretched.” It had never occurred to me that miser comes from the same root; the English word originally (in the 1540s) meant “a wretch,” but just a couple of decades later it had acquired its primary modern meaning of “money-grubbing person.” The Online Etymology Dictionary follows these definitions with a remarkable digression:
Besides general wretchedness, the Latin word [miser] connoted also “intense erotic love” (compare slang got it bad “deeply infatuated”) and hence was a favorite word of Catullus. In Greek a miser was kyminopristes, literally “a cumin seed splitter.” In Modern Greek, he might be called hekentabelones, literally “one who has sixty needles.” The German word, filz, literally “felt,” preserves the image of the felt slippers which the miser often wore in caricatures. Lettishmantrausis “miser” is literally “money-raker.”