The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 12 Dec 2019


Many ‘bene-’ words do have ‘male-’ opposites. For example, the opposite of a benefactor is a malefactor, the opposite of a benediction is a malediction, and the opposite of benevolence is malevolence. But strangely there is no ‘malefit’ that is opposite to ‘benefit’.

Or so I wrote, and then I thought I had better look it up.

The Big Dictionary has six examples, one as recent as 1989 and one as early as 1755:

I took it into my head to try for a benefit, and to that end printed some bills… but… instead of five and twenty pounds, I had barely four…. The morning after my malefit, I was obliged to strip my friend of the ownly decent gown she had, and pledged it to pay the players.

(Charlotte Charke, A narrative of the life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke (youngest daughter of Colley Cibber, Esq.), 1755.)

(I think the “benefit” here is short for “benefit performance”, an abbreviation we still use today.)

Mrs. Charke seems to be engaging in intentional wordplay. All but one of the other citations similarly suggest intentional wordplay; for example:

Malefactors used to commit malefactions. Why could they not still be said to do so, rather than disbenefits, or, perhaps, stretching a point, commit malefits?

(P. Howard, Word in Your Ear, 1983.)

The one exception is from no less a person than J.R.R. Tolkien:

Some very potent fiction is specially composed to be inspected by others and to deceive, to pass as record; but it is made for the malefit of Men.

(Around 1973, Quoted in C. Tolkien, History of Middle-earth: Sauron Defeated, 1992.)

Incidentally, J.R.R. is quoted 362 times in the Big Dictionary.

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