The Grammarphobia Blog

Benign neglect

Q: A newspaper article about Atlantic City’s war on seagulls says a casino employee “is not so benign about the birds that have seemingly taken over the world’s most famous boardwalk.” I question this use of the word “benign.” Do you think it is correct?

A: Well, the adjective “benign” can mean kind or gentle, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

And the Oxford English Dictionary has published citations for this usage going back to the days of Chaucer and earlier. In Troilus and Criseyde, for example, Chaucer uses it (spelled “benyng” in those days) to mean showing a kindly feeling: “Benyng he was to eche in general.”

The word “benign,” it seems, has had that meaning since the 14th century. (Another 14th-century meaning – humble, meek – is now obsolete, however.)

So the newspaper’s choice of words isn’t wrong. But I think that the “kindly” meaning for “benign” is rapidly getting obsolete too. These days, most people use “benign” in the sense of harmless, as in “a benign tumor.”

If I had written that story, I would have used something like “benevolent,” “generous,” “charitable,” “tolerant,” or “kindhearted.” When a usage pulls you up short (as this one did you and me), it’s probably worth changing.

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