In the following sentence, from Hemigway's The Old Man & the Sea, I believe the author used the word benevolent when he meant to use the word benign.

The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks.

Have you ever seen this discussed anywhere? It would be difficult by any stretch of the imagination or poetry to believe the author purposely used benevolent in that sentence. Maybe he was drunk. :)

But it's also a bit difficult to believe his editor missed it. Of course, maybe the editor thought Papa purposely used the word and he didn't want to raise Papa's ire.

Here are some definitions of benevolent from merriam-webster.com

1 a :marked by or disposed to doing good – a benevolent donor

b :organized for the purpose of doing good — a benevolent society

2 :marked by or suggestive of goodwill — benevolent smiles

Has benevolent changed meaning since the book was first published (1952)? Is it possible that benevolent was used, in 1952, in the same way that benign is used today?

  • 1
    Interestingly, interpreting lyrics is off-topic, but interpreting prose? The question has merit with respect to intent to discern a possible definition. However, I doubt it can be answered authoritatively in an ELU context. My opinion is mine and may not necessarily reflect anyone else's.
    – SrJoven
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 13:22
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    This is very Hemingway-esque, the skin cancer is a gift from the magnanimous Sun.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 13:28
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    I don't know the full context, but perhaps he meant it metaphorically, referring to a dark tan as benevolent skin cancer?
    – Barmar
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 16:43
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    Hardly proof, but Google ngram does show a crossover in the written popularity of the two words around 1970. books.google.com/ngrams/… Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 13:14
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about literary interpretation.
    – phenry
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 16:38

4 Answers 4


It is certainly more common to refer to any tumour or abnormality that is non-cancerous or non-life-threatening as benign, but benign and benevolent do not have the same implication.

Benign implies that the thing being described is of no net detriment.

Benevolent implies that the thing being described is of net benefit.

Though Hemingway undoubtedly knew of the general use of benign, and of course the meanings of the two words, I would suggest that Hemingway was using artistic license in this context in expressing that the blotchy abnormalities in question actively protected the character from the sun's rays (though in reality skin cancer does not protect in this way, and not all changes in skin pigmentation are cancerous). As such they were not merely of no net detriment, but were, instead, of net benefit. Hence the use of the word benevolent.

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    I'm not sure why this answer was downvoted. I think it had some interesting points.
    – raddevus
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 16:00
  • Thanks @daylight. Hopefully my edit will be enough to make whoever downvoted it change their mind, but without knowing their reason, obviously I can't address the issue directly. Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 16:26

Being a dermatology healthcare provider and Hemingway lover, I actually think he misused the term cancer rather than benevolent being the word in question.

The description he includes in the text is more aligned with solar lentigos or “sun spots” that are brownish and come from sun exposure, and increase with age and years of exposure. These spots are benign, noncancerous, and and could easily be illustrated as benevolent spots from the sun, gifts from the sun.

  • It could be that david has the right interpretation. This is the sort of question where we need an explanation of what the author actually meant; it's a question of interpretation, grading quickly into guesswork, and as such not suitable for ELU. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 19:03
  • Yep, I think this is right. And guess what? Three days of cider vinegar on a cotton ball taped to them will remove them.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 16:25

It is a literary device akin to 'Antiphrasis'.

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    This is not in agreement with other answers, where actual pluses are discussed. Where have you seen 'benevolent skin cancer' used antiphrastically? Commented Apr 4, 2021 at 14:38

Benevolent is used in the sense that the skin cancer would take the old man's life sooner rather than later, contrasted against the potentially long and tortuous ravages that old age sometimes brings.

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    Is this your own theory or is this something the author has expressed elsewhere? Commented Apr 2, 2021 at 19:39

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