Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The prefixes mis- and mal- basically mean the same thing. Mal-, from French, meaning "bad, badly, ill" and mis-, from Old English, meaning "bad, wrong". In some cases, mis- can derive from mes- (French) meaning bad(ly), wrong(ly).

From what I've noticed, the mis- prefix can be attached to any word of any origin but mal- seems to be reserved for words of French origin. For example: misaligned is a combination of mis and aligned (Old English + Middle French) and misidentify is a combination of mis and identify (Old English + French).

However, all the examples I checked with a mal- prefix are pure French, for example: malfeasance, malformed and malfunction.

So the question: Is it true that mal- can only be attached to words opf French origin? If so, is that because the words entered the English language with the prefix already attached?

share|improve this question
add comment

3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I would doubt it. Probably the best example of both of the terms is "misfeasance" and "malfeasance". Both attach to the Anglo-French root word "feas-" which is also the root of the modern French "fais" (to do/to make), and usually refer to poor performance in public office (the terms can apply to any job performance though).

However, the terms are distinct at law: "misfeasance" is an unintentional failure to satisfactorily perform the duties of the job, due to incompetence or abdication. "Malfeasance" is an intentional abuse of the powers of the job to cause damage to the office or its constituents.

I cannot think of another use of these two prefixes side by side, but use this rule of thumb: If you want to mean "bad" as in evil, use mal-. If you want to connote "poor" as in "at a low level", use mis-. The loss of a baby in utero due to force majeure or a "poor" uterine environment is a "miscarriage"; it's not a "malcarriage", as the woman did not intentionally use her womb to abuse her unborn child. By contrast, a "malodorous" person or thing literally "smells evil", and figuratively speaking may have a "stink" around their actions or personality. The word is not "misodorous", as most "malodorous" things consciously chose or were specifically designed to smell bad; it's no accident.

share|improve this answer
add comment

@dave, I know it may seem obvious that "mal" only appeared on French words, but "mis" appeared everywhere, therefore, "mal-" can only be used on French words.. In a sort of way, this is true.

What is actually happening is, we are deriving loanwords from French, plus their prefix of "mal-", so it's actually not because "mal-" can only be used on French words, but French words use "mal-".

The fact that French words use "mal-" doesn't mean "mal-" is restricted to French words. An example would be "malnutrition":

Nutrition: 1375–1425; late Middle English < Late Latin nūtrītiōn- (stem of nūtrītiō ) a feeding, equivalent to Latin nūtrīt ( us ) (past participle of nūtrīre to feed, nourish) + -iōn- -ion

This is not a French word, but "mal-" is being used on it.

share|improve this answer
add comment

According to dictionary.com: maladapted entered the language 1940-1945 by adding "mal" to "adapted", but adapted entered the language in the early 1600's from Latin or possibly French.

The answer to your second question would be "no" because the prefix was added in English, but I don't know the answer to your first question.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.