The Grammarphobia Blog: Why you can ‘malign,’ but not ‘benign’

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Q: “Malign” and “benign” look as if they should be antonyms with the same parts of speech. But “malign” is a verb and “malignant” the adjective, while “benign” is an adjective with no corresponding verb. Shouldn’t a tumor be “malignant” or “benignant”?  And why can’t you “benign” as well as “malign” someone?

A: Yes, “benign” and “malign” do behave differently, but not quite as differently as you think. A smile or a tumor can be “benign” or “benignant,” according to many standard dictionaries, though “benign” is a much more common adjective.

One big difference, as you point out, is that “malign” is a verb or an adjective while “benign” is only an adjective.  So why can someone malign a person’s character, but not benign it? We’ll have to go back to the Latin roots of the two words to answer.

“Malign” comes from the classical Latin malignus (wicked, mean), a compound of male (“badly”) and gignere (“to beget”), while “benign” comes from the classical Latin benignus (kindly, friendly, generous), a compound of bene (well) and gignere.

In post-classical Latin, the two adjectives inspired two verbs—malignare (to act or plot maliciously, to defame) and benignor or benignari (to rejoice or take delight in).  As you can see, the Latin verbs were not antonyms.

Here are examples for each that we’ve found in Saint Jerome’s Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments, completed in 405:

  • “leva manus tuas in superbias eorum in finem quanta malignatus est inimicus in sancto” (“Lift up your hands against their pride until the end; see how much the enemy has maligned the sanctuary”). From Psalms 74:3.
  • “nec est apud eam accipere personas neque differentias, sed quae iusta sunt facit omnibus iniustis ac malignis. et omnes benignantur in operibus eius” (“It is not with her [truth] to prefer persons or differences, but she does what is just to all, forsaking injustice and evil, and all rejoice in her works”). From 1 Esdra 4:39.

In the early 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Old French adopted the Latin malignare as maligner (to plot, deceive, act wrongly). And in  the early 15th century, English borrowed the term from Anglo-Norman, where it meant to slander.

When the verb maligne appeared in Middle English, the OED says, it could mean either to act wickedly or to slander someone. The dictionary’s earliest citations for these senses are from two different works written around the same time by the English monk and poet John Lydgate:

  • “Ay þe more he was to hem benigne, / Þe more vngoodly ageyn hym þei malygne” (“Ay, the more he was to them benign, the more ungoodly [wrongly] against him they malign”). From Troyyes Book (circa 1420), Lydgate’s translation from the Latin of Historia Destructionis Troiae (1287), by Guido delle Colonne.
  • “For it were veyne, nature to malingne, / Though she of kynde be the Empresse, / Ayeyne hir lorde that made hir so maystresse” (“For it were a thoughtless trait of hers to malign, though she be properly the Empress, against the lord who made her his mistress”). We’ve expanded the citation from Lydgate’s religious poem Life of Our Lady (circa 1420-22).

But as far as we can tell, benignor or benignari, the post-classical Latin verb meaning to rejoice or take delight in, didn’t inspire a similar verb in Old French, Anglo-Norman, or Middle English.

So that’s why modern English doesn’t have a verb “benign” as the antonym of our verb “malign.” And English speakers apparently don’t feel the need for one.

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