Thursday, April 05, 2007

Non-ominously speaking

I told my visitor that I've been making students angry all week, but she pooh-poohed the possibility: "You are the most benign person I know," she said. Somehow, I did not find this comforting.

Benign is the word we want to hear if we're talking about tumors, but even a benign tumor is still a tumor, and who wants to be a tumor?

I don't often see the word benign applied to people, and the examples in my dictionary are not helpful: "a benign smile" belongs on a clueless bumbler like Mr. Magoo, while "a benign king" doles out largess to his doting subjects, which I would be happy to do if I had any largess left to dole out--or any doting subjects, for that matter.

Benign describes weather that promotes health or omens that are favorable, so perhaps my visitor considers me the opposite of ominous. My dictionary wants me to apply benign to any kind, compassionate, or gracious person, but to my mind benign suggests a harmlessness that borders on the ineffectual, like a tumor that doesn't hurt but doesn't help either: it just sits there harmlessly taking up space.

But at least it's a happy tumor, grinning like an idiot in a non-ominous manner. Don't be alarmed, I'll tell my angry students. I'm totally benign.

No comments: