Well, we all know the words malignant and indignant, and that reminiscent word ignorant. There’s something about that /Ign/ that seems to come with brutish, negatively toned words, especially with an /ənt/ at the end of the word – if not prognathous or gnashing the teeth, still jamming up the mouth at back and front, releasing in a way that might remind you of having a cold /gn/, then coming to a clunking stop on the tip of the tongue /nt/.
On the other hand, there’s this word benign, with its smooth /aIn/ ending, even if it is spelled with ign. It fairly glides over that g, like skating overtop of a logo on an ice rink. It rhymes with divine (and a lot of more neutrally toned things). It might even make you think of Benigno Aquino, assassinated opponent of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and husband of Corazón Aquino, who brought democracy back to the Philippines.
Benign is usually an antonym to malignant. If you have a tumour, and it’s malignant, that’s ugly – it means cancer. But if it’s benign, that means all is fine, or anyway that it’s not cancer.
But benign and malignant aren’t quite a matched pair. They’re like a fork and knife from different sets. They come from Latin roots, benignus “kindly” and malignus “of evil intent”. They were both brought over to English in the 1300s, as benign and malign. And then, 200 years later, a new version of malign arrived, malignant, based on the related Latin form malignans, which is formed from a present participle (rather like maligning). So now we had two evil and one good. And the second evil one was taking much of the business the first evil one had.
So another 200 years later (in the 1700s, if you’re not keeping track), a parallel word was invented, benignant. Where malign bespoke character and malignant perhaps a bit more action, benignant likewise spoke more to action than just to disposition. A person who is benignant shows kindness, especially to social inferiors. So there can be a kind of condescension to it as well – the bigness it displays may bring with it a bit of indignity. I suspect this is partly due to its echoes of malignant and perhaps indignant and ignorant.
Jim Taylor, who suggested this word, noted it in a quote from Mark Twain’s autobiography: “Roosevelt closed my mouth years ago with a deeply valued, gratefully received, unasked favor; & with all my bitter detestation of him I have never been able to say a venomous thing about him in print since – that benignant deed always steps in the way…” Ah, yes, the pregnant benignancy, the indignity of receiving magnanimity, smouldering like lignite ignited. Another good deed that is not unpunishing.