In a word: baleful

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: BALEFUL

Old English had a word for evil, now spelled bale, variously spelled then, for evil particularly understood as an "active, destructive quality or influence," the Oxford English Dictionary explains. And once you have a noun, the impulse to form an adjective from it is irresistible. Baleful (pronounced BAIL-ful) was originally bealu-full, and it has been around since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Baleful, the OED tells us, can mean "full of malign, deadly, or noxious influence; pernicious, destructive, noxious, injurious, mischievous, malignant."

That the assortment includes both mischievous and malignant says something about the degree to which evil has been domesticated since the Middle Ages. You may have quailed under the baleful glare of a teacher, professor, or editor. You may anticipate opening your door on Halloween evening to baleful figures demanding sweets. (Do not deny them.)

Today the word is most often encountered in literary contexts. 

Example: From Thomas Campbell, c. 1800: "His hate is baleful, but his love is worse."  



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