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Is there a difference between 'spite' and 'malice'? Are they interchangeable? Is there an instance where one would be more suitable than the other?

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  • I would say offhand that spite implies a valuing of harm to the other over good to oneself; malice merely implies valuing harm to the other. (In combination, they name a pretty good card game for two players with two decks including jokers.) – Brian Donovan Feb 16 '15 at 15:36
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In its coverage of the allied terms malice, malevolence, ill will, spite, malignity, spleen, and grudge, Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) offers this distinction between malice and spite:

MALICE implies a deep-seated often unexplainable desire to see another suffer {felt no malice toward their former enemies}. ... SPITE implies petty feelings of envy and resentment that are often expressed in small harassments {petty insults inspired by spite}.

James Fernald, Funk & Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Synonyms, Antonyms & Prepositions (1947) has this treatment of the two terms undr the general heading "Hatred":

Malice involves the active intent to injure; in the legal sense, malice is the intent to injure, even though with no personal ill will; as, a highwayman would be aid to entertain malice toward the unknown traveler whom h attacks. Malice is direct, pressing toward a result; ... Spite is petty malice that delights to inflict stinging pain; ...

Under the general heading "Enmity," Fernald has this further comment about malice:

Malice is a disposition or intent to injure others, for the gratification of some evil passion; ...

Although he lists spite in this category as well, Fernald doesn't mention it in his detailed discussion of forms of enmity.

Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1942) has this:

Malice usually implies a deep-seated and, often an unjustified and unexplainable desire: it often carries an implication of an innate pleasure in doing evil, in inflicting injury in seeing others suffer, or in wanton destruction; [examples omitted]. Often, however, in current use, it implies mischievousness or impishness rather than a hardened, vindictive nature. [Examples omitted.] In law, malice applies to the state of mind of one who willfully commits wrong, as in full deliberation (as, malice aforethought or malice prepense), or out of the depravity of one's nature (as, implied malice). ... Spite implies active malevolence or ill will colored especially by envy or meanness of spirit; [example omitted].

The common theme here is that malice is a strong but somewhat generalized desire to injure, whereas spite possesses an element of pettiness that reduces the scale of the harm it seeks to inflict.

  • +1 Recognizing that the words share a lot of common ground, the notion of pettiness seems to be the major difference. I wonder if spite's roots in despise influences that. – ScotM Feb 16 '15 at 20:11
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The gist of the ODO entries are as follows. And it puts them very close in meaning.

spite - deliberately hurt, annoy or offend.

malice - the desire to harm someone, ill will.

I think the essential difference between the two words is that spite is more often used in connection with harm to a person.

Brain-damaged from birth, Henrietta often acts spitefully toward her younger siblings.

Malice, it seems to me, is more often used with damage to property.

The breaking of the window was done with malicious intent.

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