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A friend recently used the phrase bane of my existence, and while I’m familiar with the phrase, I would like to know its origin and meaning.

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bane: a cause of great distress or annoyance –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 26 '11 at 17:14
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@z7sg or that which causes ruin or death. –  KitFox Jul 26 '11 at 17:15
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@Kit Yes, although death and existence are sort of mutually exclusive. –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 26 '11 at 17:18
    
    
@z7sg: the phrase is very old and means essentially the same thing as "doom" or "nemesis" -- it relates to fate, not necessarily to a pre-existing state of death. –  bye Jul 26 '11 at 21:02

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

bane: a cause of great distress or annoyance

Therefore the bane of your existence is the chief annoyance or distress in your life, it is something that prevents you from enjoying life, turning it instead to misery.

From White Fang by Jack London:

But the bane of his life was Lip-lip. Larger, older, and stronger, Lip-lip had selected White Fang for his special object of persecution. White Fang fought willingly enough, but he was outclassed. His enemy was too big. Lip-lip became a nightmare to him. Whenever he ventured away from his mother, the bully was sure to appear, trailing at his heels, snarling at him, picking upon him, and watchful of an opportunity, when no man-animal was near, to spring upon him and force a fight. As Lip-lip invariably won, he enjoyed it hugely. It became his chief delight in life, as it became White Fang's chief torment.

Bane itself is an unusual word in English and outside of this common phrase it is rarely used in the modern language. According to phrases.org.uk it was present in the Old English Chronicles and meant 'murderer'. It can also be found in the common names of the plants henbane and wolfsbane, both of which contain deadly poisons.

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The earliest use I found of the phrase is in Arthur Neil's Adelaide: An Original East Indian Story, published in the September 1794 edition of The Sentimental and masonic magazine (v.5, page 206):

Lindsey, from his earliest acquaintance with Miss Pomeroy, had been the bane of her existence ; the small degree of affection her father had hitherto shewn, he had alienated from her ; and he, she doubted not, it was, who had spread the groundless calumny that harried her from France ; he, too, now with persevering cruelty, though though the Governor frequently heard from Ireland, and though Lady Catherine often wrote to her, and expressed, in every letter, the utmost astonishment at receiving no reply, even this first wish of Adelaide's heart he artfully contrived she should not be gratified in, well knowing, from Belmour's attachment, if made acquainted with the truth of her situation, that Adelaide would not long remain subject to his power, so much did the tenure of Mr. Pomeroy's many very lucrative posts depend on the pleasure of the Earl, and so much was the Governor dazzled by the splendor of Lindsey't alliance, that, at his instance, he consigned to the flames, unperused, all Lady Catherine's letters to his daughter, persuaded that the less indulgence she found in her confinement, the more speedily she would consent to their wishes.

(This single sentence has 1,158 characters, 190 words, 27 commas and three semicolons.)

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"Bane" is a somewhat archaic word implying that the thing being described is good for killing (or at least getting rid of) something else. For example, wolfsbane is a plant that was traditionally used to poison wolves.

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Found this online; sounds like Bane may have been the source of pain for Scots and others.

Donald Bane, also spelled Donaldbane, or Donalbane, Bane also spelled Ban or Bain (born c. 1033—died after 1097), king of Scotland from November 1093 to May 1094 and from November 1094 to October 1097, son of Duncan I.

Upon the death of his brother Malcolm III Canmore (1093) there was a fierce contest for the crown. Donald Bane besieged Edinburgh Castle, took it, and, with the support of the Celtic Scots and the custom of tanistry (the Celtic system of electing kings or chiefs), he was king nominally for at least six months. He was expelled by Duncan II, son of Malcolm, assisted by English and Normans and some Saxons. Duncan’s reign was equally short, for Donald Bane had his nephew slain and again reigned for three years.

These years saw the last attempt of the Celts to maintain a king of their race and a kingdom governed according to their customs. Edgar the Aetheling, who had newly befriended the Norman king of England, led an army into Scotland, dispossessed Donald Bane, and advanced his nephew Edgar, son of Malcolm III, as sole king of the Scots

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The OED states that Modern English bane derives from Old English bána, which in turn has its roots in Primitive Germanic (that’s they mean by Teut.), and so is found in all Germanic tongues today. The etymology given in the OED for bane is: “Common Teut.: OE. bana, bo̧na = OFris. bona, OS., OHG. bano, MHG. bane, ban, ONor. bani, Sw., Da. bane, ‘death, murder’ :– OTeut. *banon- wk. masc. Cogn. w. Goth. banja, ONor., OE. bȩn :– OTeut. *banjâ- (str. fem.) wound.” –  tchrist Jun 22 at 21:10

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