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Dr. Goodword
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Postby Dr. Goodword » Wed Sep 19, 2012 12:27 am

• baleful •

Pronunciation: bayl-fêl • Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Miserable, wretched, distressed, suffering. 2. Malicious, injurious, noxious.

Notes: No, today's Good Word has nothing to do with picking or packing cotton; it is derived from a noun that is no longer in use: bale "evil, harm, woe". Bale is the cause of injury and suffering, senses which turn up in baleful. Since bale in this sense is no longer in use, balefulness has replaced it. Balefully works fine as the adverb.

In Play: The second sense of today's word is slipping from our collective grip, so here is a sentence that compares it with the more common meaning: "Rodney came to work a bit baleful (sense 1) this morning after receiving a baleful (sense 2) decision from the IRS last week." Of course, bale is always best detected in the eyes: "Don't look at me with those baleful eyes; you still will not get any ice cream until you clean your room."

Word History: Bale comes from Old English bealu, which seems to have been an offspring of the Proto-Indo-European root bheleu "weak, sick". This root is also responsible for Russian bol' "pain" and bolet' "to be sick, hurt". Some have speculated that the original meaning of this root was "to hit", which would explain the ostensible relationship to blow in the sense of hitting or striking. This is something of a stretch, however, beyond our speculative capacities. (We would be a bit baleful in the second sense above were we not to thank Chris Berry for suggesting today's Good Word. It would probably make him a bit baleful, too—in the first sense.)
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Postby MTC » Wed Sep 19, 2012 5:22 am

The authorities are in disarray over the meaning of baleful, specifically:

bale·ful (blfl)
1. Portending evil; ominous. See Synonyms at sinister.
2. Harmful or malignant in intent or effect.


baleful·ly adv.
baleful·ness n.
Usage Note: Baleful and baneful overlap in meaning, but baleful usually applies to something that is menacing or foreshadows evil: a baleful look. Baneful most often describes that which is actually harmful or destructive: baneful effects of their foreign policy.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Other online dictionaries are in accord with The American Heritage Dictionary except The Collins Dictionary which is in agreement with Dr. Goodword's definition.

If that weren't enough confusion, there is the close distinction between baleful and baneful to consider. See the Usage Note above. Personally, I find the threatening harm/actual harm distinction between baleful and baneful helpful, if that isn't too many "fuls."

I left my copy of the OED Shorter Edition behind in China, and so do not have access to what some consider the final arbiter.
What do the rest of the Goodwordians think?

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Postby Perry Lassiter » Wed Sep 19, 2012 5:35 pm

A most baleful situation of course,though probably no harm will come from it.

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Postby Philip Hudson » Thu Sep 20, 2012 12:21 am

Reading the word baneful in this discussion brings to mind one of the best and best written, but not well known, novels in the English language, "Precious Bane" by Mary Webb (1924). The book was dramatized on BBC several years ago but I don't think it has played in the USA. If you haven't read it, do.
It is dark at night, but the Sun will come up and then we can see.

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Postby bnjtokyo » Wed Jun 07, 2017 4:40 am

I agree with MTC that "ominous" is one of the closer synonyms of baleful in current usage. Consider this quote from the New Yorker discussing inter alia recent North Korean missile tests: "Vice-President Pence, dressed in a bomber jacket, travelled to the DMZ to be photographed as he stared balefully across the border, saying that he wanted the North Koreans to 'see our resolve in my face.'" "The Warrior Monk," The New Yorker, May 29, 2017, pg. 45.

I don't think Mr Pence wanted anyone to think he was "miserable, wretched, distressed, suffering" (although he probably was, particularly if the wind was blowing). I think Mr Pence's use of "our resolve" argues against understanding "balefully" as "malicious[ly], injurious[ly]"

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