bale·​ful ˈbāl-fəl How to pronounce baleful (audio)
: deadly or pernicious in influence
baleful effects
: foreboding or threatening evil
gave him a baleful look
balefully adverb
balefulness noun

Did you know?

The bale of baleful comes from Old English bealu ("evil"), and the bane of the similar-looking baneful comes from Old English bana ("slayer" or "murderer"). Baleful and baneful are alike in meaning as well as appearance, and they are sometimes used in quite similar contexts—but they usually differ in emphasis. Baleful typically describes what threatens or portends evil (e.g., "a baleful look," "baleful predictions"). Baneful applies typically to what causes evil or destruction (e.g., "a baneful secret," "the baneful bite of the serpent"). Both words are used to modify terms like influence, effect, and result, and in such uses there is little that distinguishes them.

Choose the Right Synonym for baleful

sinister, baleful, malign mean seriously threatening evil or disaster.

sinister suggests a general or vague feeling of fear or apprehension on the part of the observer.

a sinister aura haunts the place

baleful imputes perniciousness or destructiveness to something whether working openly or covertly.

exerting a corrupt and baleful influence

malign applies to what is inherently evil or harmful.

the malign effects of racism

Examples of baleful in a Sentence

the baleful effects of water pollution a dark, baleful sky portending a tornado
Recent Examples on the Web But in his eyes, godless communism and the Soviet Union were just as baleful. Reuel Marc Gerecht, Foreign Affairs, 7 Sep. 2023 Holmes’s comments remind us that there’s a long and baleful backstory behind today’s efforts to bring back child labor. Naomi Oreskes, Scientific American, 1 June 2023 The mercenary warlord telescoped into a two-day tragicomic plot many of the baleful forces in Russian history and thought that Mr. Morson’s cherished authors dissected, dramatized—and often mocked. Boyd Tonkin, WSJ, 7 July 2023 With his invasion of Ukraine floundering and his economy teetering, Putin doubled down Wednesday, turning his baleful glare on Russians who are against the invasion or who sympathize with the West. Alexander Smith, NBC News, 17 Mar. 2022 The baleful results are only just now being tallied. The Editors, National Review, 22 June 2023 The Supreme Court’s decision Thursday in West Virginia v. EPA may be the beginning of the end of this baleful era. Mario Loyola, WSJ, 30 June 2022 Spurred on by images of thousands of asylum seekers waiting to be processed under the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, Patrick launched into a baleful speech about a sinister Democrat ploy to take over the country and replace its citizenry with people from other nations. Dan Carson, Chron, 17 Sep. 2021 When Lizzy gazes up at one of Jo’s pieces, a dramatic yarn installation that looks like a baleful eye, the mind goes to Reichardt (who supports herself by teaching at Bard) watching the films of attention-getting A24 labelmates like Ari Aster and the Daniels. Vulture, 7 Apr. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'baleful.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English balefull "(of humans or animals) bent upon mischief or destruction, malevolent, (of things) pernicious," also "wretched, miserable," going back to Old English bealluful "full of evil, sinful," from bealu bale entry 1 + -ful -ful entry 1

First Known Use

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of baleful was before the 12th century


Dictionary Entries Near baleful

Cite this Entry

“Baleful.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 9 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


bale·​ful ˈbāl-fəl How to pronounce baleful (audio)
: deadly or harmful in influence
: threatening harm or evil
a baleful look
balefully adverb
balefulness noun

More from Merriam-Webster on baleful

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