- malicious, malign, malignant, malevolent1. All four words are connected with doing harm or evil (from Latin malus), but there are important differences. Malicious means ‘intending to do harm’ and is associated with people (or occasionally animals) and their actions:
• The dog that destroys Gabriel Oak's sheep is over-enthusiastic, not malicious —Margaret Drabble, 1976.Malignant is used principally in medical contexts of life-threatening diseases and tumours; its more general meaning, ‘feeling or showing intense ill will’, is still found
• (He would have a sensation of something malignant about to crush him —G. Watson, 1991)but is now overshadowed by the technical use. The shorter form malign is used mostly of things that are evil in their nature or effects
• (She was no longer the victim of chance, of a malign fate —W. J. Burely, 1989)it has also been used in the medical sense as an opposite of benign but has largely given way to malignant. Malevolent means ‘wishing harm to others’ and refers rather to general disposition than to particular actions or conduct:
• Trees were brooding presences, soughing incantations. Every bush hid an invisible force, frequently malevolent —W. McIlvanney, 1975.Malevolent is often used of looks and sounds:
• He had a nervous twitch which jerked at a muscle at the corner of his thin-lipped mouth and a malevolent stare —A. Granger, 1991.2. The corresponding nouns are malice (or maliciousness, which has more specific reference), malignancy, and malevolence. The noun malignity is derived from malign and has enjoyed substantial usage over several centuries in the meaning ‘wicked ill will or hatred’, which it still has although it is used much less than formerly:
• He seems spiritually empty, just golden-haired and glitteringly superficial, yet with flashes of satanic malignity and suppressed fears —ABC Magazine, 2007.
Modern English usage. 2014.