Saturday, April 27, 2013


For the past few weeks, I've been fortunate enough to be staying in my friends' studio while my own place undergoes extensive renovation. My friends have an English bulldog, who I've known for many years, and one of the fun things about my stay here is that she likes to come and visit when I'm home. The studio used to be inhabited by my friends' son, so I'm sure it's kind of a reflected glory, but still, it's nice to have a parttime animal friend. The other day, though, when I wasn't quick enough to answer the door, she had already returned to my friends' house and was waiting to be let in there. When I called out to her, she turned and gave me what could only be described as a baleful look. It was exactly the word that came to mind, and no other would do as well. But what does it mean, exactly? I mean by it some kind of cross between recriminatory and disappointed, with a touch of bad mood thrown in. By chance, I found a picture of a baleful bulldog, which is not quite the same as an English Bulldog, but captures the mood:



Well, I'm glad I had that picture as a kind of verification that this is more or less what people think 'baleful' means, as the definition is a bit more severe. As The Free Dictionary has it, baleful means

1. Portending evil; ominous.
2. Harmful or malignant in intent or effect.
And over at
1. Miserable, wretched, distressed, suffering.
2. Malicious, injurious, noxious.
That's because baleful comes out of  the Old English  bealu-full, "dire, wicked or cruel" and bealu itself is even more extreme: "harm, injury, ruin, evil, mischief, wickedness, a noxious thing". The speculated ProtoIndoEuropean root is bheleu--to beat. This all seems a pretty long way from the reproachful glance of a bulldog.
But there has long been a bit of poetic license around the word. Even by the time the Anglo-Saxons got ahold of it, bealu was used in a poetic sense only, or so the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us. Couple of nice words there, though--bealubenn, a mortal wound, and bealuðonc, a mortal thought*. Although the range of use seems a bit limited if we can go by our examples... 
Baleful became extinct for a time, as you might understand why, but was revived. By who? Modern romantic poets, of course. I went looking for an example but only encountered a "pre-romantic" poet, one William Collins, who I hadn't heard of before.
But who is He whom later Garlands grace,
Who left a-while o'er Hybla's Dews to rove,
With trembling Eyes thy dreary Steps to trace,
Where Thou and Furies shar'd the baleful Grove?

                                   from "Ode to Fear"

Here's the poem in its entirety. 
And here's  a little bit about William Collins. Though he died relatively young, he did make it to almost forty, but Wikipedia tells us that this is the sole portrait.

*Edited because I misspoke the first time.


  1. I like the ðonc part of bealuðonc. Appropriated by cartoonists for a sound effect, perhaps?

  2. I'm glad you brought this up,Peter, because I completely mistranscribed or misread that.Bealuðonc actually means 'evil thought'. So I'll edit that. Proving once again the need for copyeditors.

  3. No, you're probably right because ðonc would be pronounced think, I think.

  4. No, I'm just repeating what the Etymology dictionary says. I had misread it the first time.

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  6. Yes, I realized that my reply made no sense, but I thought I would only confuse matters by trying to explain what I had done. In any case, thanks for introducing bealuðonc to my world.

  7. He looks a wee bit baleful in his portrait, doesn't he?

  8. He had a hard life, Kathleen. But then, he was trying to make a living as a poet, so I suppose that goes almost without saying.

  9. I think it'd be cool to learn Old English ... but there are so few extant texts out there it seems kind of pointless.

    Great word, though. I wish I used baleful more.

    -Brian O

  10. Brian, all it would take is one great online game using Old English as the language, and there would be a great revival. At least, this was my conclusion after a similar thing happened with my nephews and Latin.

    Great to see you stop in, by the way.

  11. Seana

    I always liked baleful. For some reason it always reminds me of parlous. Perhaps I saw them together somewhere when I was very young and it just stuck.

  12. Funny--I did a post or two on parlous once upon a time. Actually, more even than that, which is just plain weird of me.

  13. Astonishing that an arrangement of muscles and neural impulses can impart such an anthropomorphic expression to a canine face, isn't it?

    I wouldn't say so in the dog's earshot, because it would just turn to me, scowl, and say, "Ah, piss off, will you?"

    I've always liked that word, "scowl."

  14. Yes the bulldog face makes it possible, but I think the baleful look is genuine, and much like it would be in us.

    I don't just like scowl--I live it.

  15. Two more words I've always liked: irascible and cantankerous.

  16. I thought I had done a post on one of these words and it turns out I have.

  17. And I have just added a comment to that post. You have a flair for finding pictures of disgruntled animals. And, with respect to your old post, I always liked troublemaker. I like its connotation. I like its straightforward Germanic-style compounding of what I guess is one Germanic element and another Romance element.

  18. Troublemaker would be a good one to look into. I actually have a fair number to explore stacked up right now, just haven't had the time to do them lately.