• benign •
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Harmless, causing no damage. 2. Gentle, mild, mildly pleasant, kind.
Notes: We are all familiar with the silent Es (gate) and GHs in English (night, though), but we also have a few silent Gs. Today's Good Word contains one; so do malign and several others: reign, sign, align, to mention just three. The difference between benign and malign, on the one hand, and the others, is that the G is pronounced in derivations. The noun for today's word, for instance, is benignity [bê-nig-nê-tee].
In Play: Senator Patrick Moynihan, while serving in the Nixon Whitehouse, stunned the nation by writing in a memo to President Nixon in 1970, "The issue of race could benefit from a period of benign neglect." The phrase has remained in the language ever since. Whenever we are diagnosed with a mysterious bodily growth, we always hope that it is a benign tumor rather than a malignant cancer. While such tumors are not kind, the do no irrevocable harm. We all, of course, prefer to live in a benign environment, not only harmless but kind to those living in it.
Word History: The vanishing G in today's Good Word is the work of French, where GN is usually pronounced [ny] and where English borrowed this word. In the case of French benigne, however, the G disappeared altogether in the masculine form so that French men today are bénin but women are bénigne [beninyê]. Both the G and the N were pronounced in Latin benignus "kind, friendly, generous", source of the French word. This word began as a compound of bene "well" + gignere "to beget, give birth", so the original meaning of the adjective was "well-born", hence "well-bred". Gignere came from Latin genus "birth", which English uses in a different sense today. That is it in generous, too. (We are grateful to the most generous William Hupy for so benignly suggesting today's Good Word.)
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