Baleful and Baneful

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A reader asks,

Would you please tell me the difference between “baleful” and “baneful.” I know both adjectives relate to “evil.”

Both of these adjectives derive from ancient Old English words.

In Beowulf, a bane is a murderer.

By extension, bane came to mean anything that causes destruction. In time, bane came to be a synonym for poison. The element appears in the names of several plants that have poisonous properties:

henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)
dogbane (Apocynum)
wolfsbane (Aconitum lycoctonum)

A common name for rat poison (especially white arsenic) is ratsbane.

In modern usage the meaning of baneful at its strongest is pernicious; at its mildest, harmful. Here are some examples:

The authors neglect the baneful effect of the gold standard in their discussion of the Great Depression and other economic periods. 

The Baneful Consequences of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines

He deplores the general decline of handwriting and the baneful effect on communication. 

On the one hand, there is persuasive evidence that gender bias, gender segregation, and gender discrimination still exist and still have a baneful effect on access.

The Old English word bealu (the source of bale in baleful) may be translated variously as harm, injury, ruin, evil, mischief, and wickedness. A bealu could be a wound or anything unpleasant.

In modern usage, the adjective baleful is used in the sense of threatening:

And as he spoke his eyes gleamed, and again that baleful smile passed over his face.

A baleful star, come to cause us harm

IRS Turning Its Baleful Gaze At Company Cafeterias That Churn Out Free Food

Sometimes the phrase “a baleful look” seems to be used as the equivalent of “an accusing look” or “a dirty look”:

I have one-sided conversations with the dog (who at best cocks his head quizzically at me but most often casts me a baleful look).

Kevin sat on my bed giving me baleful looks.

When I called out to her, she turned and gave me what could only be described as a baleful look. 

As the reader suggests, both baneful and baleful carry connotations of evil. Some speakers do use the words interchangeably, but there’s a difference.

In the following examples the word baneful (harmful) would be the clearer choice:

The baleful effect of computer benchmarks upon applied mathematics, physics and chemistry. (Title of a paper by a mathematics professor).

First, since the evidence suggests that computer technologies generally improve student achievement overall, and no baleful results were found, there should be more computer use by students regardless of social class or geographic location. (From an academic paper about technology and education).

Bale (evil) is no longer used apart from the adjective baleful, but the word bane continues to be used as a stand-alone noun in the sense of “a person who makes another completely miserable” or “the agent or instrument of ruin or woe”:

My ex-husband is the bane of my happiness.

Edward Snowden continues to be the bane of U.S. government surveillance and spy operations. 

Opium had in fact been the bane of the economic and social life of the Assamese people.

Bradford pear one of life’s many botanical banes

Fleas are the bane of my existence.

Baleful conveys menace, whereas baneful connotes definite harm.

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