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Using 'Mal-'

Prefix Indicates Undesirable Attribute


Dog with sign on its back

No al maltratar animal. (No to animal abuse.)

Photo by Partido Animalista; licensed via Creative Commons.

Like its English counterpart, the Spanish prefix mal- is added to word roots to indicate that something is bad, abnormal or otherwise undesirable.

Since the prefix is part of both languages, it shouldn't be surprising that the prefix comes from Latin, specifically from the words male (badly) and malus (bad). The prefix can be parts of nouns, verb, adjectives and adverbs.

In most cases, you can easily guess what a mal- word means if you know the root word means. A few examples:

  • malcomer, to eat poorly
  • malentendido, misunderstanding
  • malformación, malformation
  • malhablado, foul-mouthed
  • malherir, to injure badly
  • malintencionado, with bad intentions
  • malnutrición, malnutrition
  • maloliente, bad-smelling
  • malsano, unhealthy
  • maltratar, to mistreat, to abuse
  • malvivir, to live poorly

Here are some mal- words whose meanings may be less obvious:

  • malasangre, evil-minded (from sangre, blood)
  • malcriado, spoiled (said of a child, from criar, to raise a child)
  • maldad, evil
  • maldecir, to curse (from decir, to speak)
  • maleado, corrupt
  • maleducado, rude (from educar, to educate or to raise a child)
  • malestar, uneasiness, unrest
  • malgaster, to waste (from gastar, to spend)
  • malhabido, ill-gotten
  • malhumor, bad mood, foul temper (from humor, mood or temperament)
  • malicia, wickedness, malice
  • malignidad, maligno, malignancy, malignant
  • malograr, to waste
  • malosante, rude
  • malpagar, to underpay
  • malparado, in a bad state (from parar, to stop)
  • maltraer, to mistreat
  • maltrecho, battered
  • malversar, to embezzle (from versar, to have dealings)

Mal can also stand by itself as an adjective (for example, ese mal hombre, that bad man), noun (meaning a sickness, evil, or something evil or bad) or adverb (as in cantar mal, to sing poorly).

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