Q&A: The origin of “bane of my existence”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, a bane threshold…

Q: Hey AWC, if I say that something is the “bane of my existence” or “the bane of my life”, what exactly is a bane?

A: Well, for starters, it’s not Bane from the 2012 Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises.

Q: Bane? Um, don’t you mean Bale??

A: No. Christian Bale did indeed play Batman. But Bane was the name of one of the villains who fought him.

Q: Bale vs Bane? You must be joking.

A: Actually, The Joker wasn’t in that movie.

Q: So if it’s not a comic book character in people’s lives and existences, what “bane” is it?

A: Macquarie Dictionary lists “bane” as that which causes death or destroys life. 

Q: Hmmm, not sure I’ve seen it used by itself. I’ve only ever heard of it being used in the phrase.

A: Yeah, it’s not all that common these days. Although Merriam-Webster Dictionary does liken it to a “curse” – with the example of “frontiers have been more of a bane than a boon for mankind”. It can also be a poison.

Q: None of this sounds very good.

A: What did you expect? Being the “bane” of someone’s existence is not typically a good thing!

Q: Yeah, I guess so. What’s its origin story?

A: The word is very old and very dark – coming to Old English from Old German in around the 9th century (it makes an appearance in the epic poem, Beowulf), with “bana” meaning “murderer” or “slayer”…

Q: Slay!

A: Sorry?

Q: It’s what all the kids are saying these days. Please, continue.

A: Its poisonous roots showed up by the 1400s in “ratsbane” and “fleabane” and other concoctions used to destroy – or slay – those particular creatures of the time.

Q: Oh, and wolfsbane? Apparently that’s bad for werewolves…

A: Well, it’s actually the alternative name of the poisonous plant Aconitum, but yes, you might see it pop up in fantasy novels.

Q: So, when did all this actual poison and slaying become figurative, such as “Sharon from accounts is the bane of my existence”.

A: Haha. By the 1570s, the meaning of “bane” had downgraded somewhat to simply “that which causes woe or ruin” – no longer necessarily a murderer on a killing spree.

Q: More of an invoice-hungry monster trying to run the end-of-month report?

A: Exactly. While the singular word “bane” has remained in the dictionary, it has become less relevant over time – with Google’s Ngram viewer showing that its usage in literature has dropped some 80% in the past two centuries.

Q: And yet it still gets used in the phrase.

A: Yes. The phrase “bane of my life” first appeared in print in the 1590s, and it likely WAS describing a killer. However, over time it came to describe more of a nemesis than an actual murderer. Today, it tends to be used in an overly dramatic way. For example, “Self-serve checkouts are the bane of my existence”.

Q: They can be annoying, it’s true. “Unexpected items detected in the bagging area”… Ugh.

A: Annoying, yes. But not deadly. So while the somewhat archaic “bane” continues to be listed in dictionaries as causing death, Its status in the more common phrases is more about regular frustration.

Q: A “bane in the ass”!

A: Very good.

Q: Any bonus bane bits to share?

A: Actually yes. One surprising link to “bane” can be found in Germany – with the “autobahn”.

Q: The highway with no speed limits? I suppose it could cause some frustration if you got stuck behind a little old lady doing 50.

A: No, it’s not that. The German translation is essentially “automobile path” – however the origin “bahn” goes back to that Old German “bana” and the killing in this case is striking or cutting something – a path cutting through the landscape.

Q: Wow, okay. Did not see that coming.

A: …Said the chicken on the Autobahn.

Q: Haha. So to recap, “bane” started its life solely as something that could and would kill you, but eventually expanded to things or people that simply make life unpleasant. Today, these live on as “banes of our existence/life”. Yeah?

A: Slayed it!


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