Misfeasance or Malfeasance?

By Maeve Maddox

I just heard James Oberstar (D-Minn.) chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee spokesman accuse the Federal Aviation Agency of both misfeasance and malfeasance. Here’s the comment as reported in the Los Angeles Times:

“The FAA would have us believe this was an isolated incident and that the damage is contained, that it was attributable to a rogue individual,” Oberstar said. Instead, he said, the congressional investigation shows “a systematic breakdown” in the FAA’s culture, resulting in “misfeasance, malfeasance, bordering on corruption.”

Mr. Oberstar might in his turn be accused of overabundance, overflow, overmuch, overplus, superfluity, surfeit, and overkill in his choice of words.

Unless, of course, he’s a lawyer, in which case he does see a difference between misfeasance and malfeasance.

The words are similar in origin as well as in meaning.

Misfeasance is from Middle French mesfaisance. The mes part is a negative and faisance is from faire “to do” or “to make.” The person guilty of misfeasance is literally “making bad.”

Here are some definitions of misfeasance:

• a wrong action
• the performance of a lawful action in an illegal or improper manner
• wrong or improper conduct in public office

Malfeasance combines the English prefix mal (bad) with Middle English feasance which was from Middle French faisance.

Definitions of malfeasance:

• wrongdoing, misconduct, misbehavior
• specifically, the misuse of authority by a public officer – called also malpractice
• an act or instance of wrongdoing especially by a public officer under color of authority of his office

According to the site wisegeek:

Malfeasance is a legal term that refers to an individual intentionally performing an act that is illegal.
Misfeasance, is a legal act performed wrongfully. That is, a public official or a lawyer (or an FAA agent) may do something that is not illegal but is mistaken or erroneous.

This site presents a third term:

Nonfeasance , which is closely related to misfeasance, is the failure to act even though a duty to act existed.

Even for lawyers, the terms blur at the edges:

Due to disagreement over the exact meaning of malfeasance, the definitions of malfeasance and misfeasance sometimes overlap. As a result, malfeasance can also sometimes refer to negligent acts that were committed out of ignorance and not just to those that were committed intentionally.

Whatever the FAA is guilty of, it’s not good.

More at wisegeek.com

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4 Responses to “Misfeasance or Malfeasance?”

  • Jeremy

    For a website dedicated to correct writing, I was surprised to read you refer to James Oberstar as “Mr. Oberstar” shortly after describing his role in Congress. Similar to someone who has gone through medical school or seminary, members of high offices in government should be referred to as such. Senators should be called, “Sen. Blahblah.” Likewise, “Mr. Oberstar” should have been written as “Congressman Oberstar” or “Rep. Oberstar.”
    Thanks for all you are doing. This is a great blog.

  • tyler dewitt

    Should that word only be used in a public office (malfeasance) or could it be used anywhere for example instead of telling somebody that was wrong could I just say that was very malfeasance of you?

  • Maeve

    tyler,
    I’d reserve the word for people who betray the public trust.

    “Malfeasance” is a noun. The adjective would be “malfeasant.”

  • Neil

    What does or would it take to find a union official(s) malfeasant of elected office? I am nothing short of the average factory worker but I find myself in disdain over the elected union officials of local UAW #5 lack of support concerning job placements for the skilled trades of the H2 facility from this past year. Jobs were created for all qualified H2 production employees that were to be on layoff (late 2008 thru 2009) into the AM Generals other factory facilities but nothing was created for the skilled tradesmen that have been on layoff. Just asking if anyone could give a nod on where to go to seek some sort of help on this situation.

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