WOTY candidate: "malus"

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It's Word of the Year season again, and a dark-horse candidate is surging on the inside turn to the home stretch: malus.  (OK, well, it appeals to me at least — my poor past record in predicting WOTY choices suggests that my lexical tastes are in the minority.) A press release from the Union Bank of Switzerland, dated 11/17/2008,  explained that "[b]eginning in 2009, UBS will adopt a new compensation model for the Board of Directors and the Group Executive Board", according to which

Variable cash compensation for the Group Executive Board is based on a bonus / malus system.

This has struck a chord in the news media, which responded with more than 1,200 stories mentioning "malus" in the week since that press release (only a few of which deal with the apple genus).

In Latin, malus was an adjective meaning (according to Lewis & Short) "bad, evil, wicked, injurious, destructive, mischievous, hurtful, ill-looking, ugly, deformed, " etc., parallel to bonus meaning "good".

According to the OED, English bonus, meaning "A boon or gift over and above what is normally due as remuneration to the receiver", has been in use since the late 18th century:

1773 C. MACKLIN Man of World III. i, Got my share of the clothing..the contracts, the lottery tickets, and aw the political bonuses.
1802 Edin. Rev. I. 104 The bonus of one half per cent. interest will not mend the matter.
1808 SCOTT in Lockhart (1839) III. 134 The Editor..makes a point of every contributor receiving this Bonus.

In contrast, malus in the corresponding negative sense is not in the online OED yet at all. However, it's not a brand-new borrowing: there's a Wikipedia article on the "Bonus-malus system" in insurance, with a reference to a 1995 book, Jean Lemaire, "Bonus-malus Systems in Automobile Insurance". The book in turn makes it clear that the term had already been in use for some time as of 1995.

(Latin mālus with a long /a/ meant "appletree", which has altogether  the wrong associations for a negative compensation increment. The Latin for "apple" was mālum, although the modern genus name, confusingly, is malus.)

Kevin Conor, who sent me a link to the UBS press release the day after it appeared, noted that

Basically UBS is withholding 2/3 of executives' cash bonuses in escrow for several years, and the bonuses will be subject to clawbacks (the malus) if the firm's performance fails to meet certain targets. This doesn't actually address the problems with investment banking incentive structures (all it does is mimic the economics of option grants that take time to vest, an already widely used method of executive compensation), but it does give people an ugly new word to talk about.

The Anglo-Saxon compound clawback doesn't combine so euphoniously in a package with bonus, so that the (apparently newer) borrowing or analogical formation is useful. The OED's earliest citation for clawback in the financial sense of "retrieval, recovery" is from 1969, but the lack of quotes or explanation in the citation suggests that it was already an accepted term then:

1969 Daily Tel. 16 Apr. 24/4 It is..necessary to adjust the claw-back for 1969-70 so as to reflect the fact that the 3s extra on family allowances..will be paid for a full year in 1969-70.

It's logical to expect bad puns based on the homophony of "malus" and "malice", and sure enough, Andrew Hill in the Financial TImes (or the editor who wrote his headline) obliged on 11/18/2008 with "Malus aforethought". (For some notes on the origins and subsequent adventures of "malice aforethought", see this old LL entry.)

[Update: the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française has this entry:

(1)*MALUS (s se fait entendre) n. m. XXe siècle. Emprunté du latin malus, « mauvais ».
Augmentation de prime qu'une compagnie d'assurances impose au conducteur responsable d'un ou plusieurs accidents (par opposition à Bonus).

which doesn't tell us more about the history than we already knew from the 1995 book citation.

A bit of further search turns up a 1985 book (Jean Lemaire, Automobile Insurance) that also assumes "bonus-malus system" as a well-established piece of terminology:

As is done everywhere in the world, we are going to build up a bonus-malus system exclusively based on the number of accidents reported to the company (and not on their amount). [p. 129]

Florent de Vylder et al., Premium Calculation in Insurance, 1984, says

The introduction of the Bonus Malus system in Belgium took place around 1970. [p. 119]

A search of Google Scholar turns up Jean Lemaire, "How to define a Bonus-Malus system with exponential utility function", ASTIN Bulletin 10 274-282, 1979. (And Don Campbell, in the comments below, gives an ASTIN citation that takes it back to 1967.)

All this raises the question of whether and when malus came to be used by itself, outside of phrases like "bonus-malus system", as in "I hear that this year's maluses will be even bigger than last year's".



  1. .mau. said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 11:07 am

    for what it's worth, in Italy the concept of bonus-malus for car insurance dates as back as 1975.

  2. Gregory Dyke said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 11:11 am

    Malus has been part of economical and common parlance in French for as long as I can remember. It works well because "mal" being the opposite of "bon", there is no need of latin knowledge. My uneducated (in latin) ears always interpreted as a back-construction, similar to aerodrome but which happens to be correct.

    I expect the word was coined by a French- or German- speaker in what was probably a translated press-release. If coined by a German- speaker, I don't know whether the word is part of specialised enconomical vocabulary or whether it is also common parlance (in either case I would expect it to orignate in French).

    (The French *may* be restricted to French as spoken in Switzerland – not sure)

  3. John Cowan said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 11:14 am

    Malo malo malo malo 'I'd rather be / In an apple tree / Than a villain in adversity.'

  4. Richard Hooper said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    I remember being pleasantly intrigued when reading the instructions for an English edition of the originally German board game "Ticket to Ride" ("Zug um Zug") – at the end of the game, various items are totted up to give a final score; some are "bonus" and add to your score, and some are "malus" and subtract. I'd never seen it before – sounds likely that its English use in the manual stems from an unremarkable use in the original German.

  5. Bobbie said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    If bonus means extra money TO the recipient, does malus mean that the person has to give money BACK (i.e is fined for poor behavior) , or that he/she simply does not receive the bonus?

  6. Doug Sundseth said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

    The original boardgame version of Europa Universalis (1996) was originally written in French. The English translation was … idiosyncratic. To be fair, rules writing is technical writing with an extensive specialized vocabulary, so a good translation of a complex rules set like that in EU is non-trivial. But in this case, it looked like the translator had a French-English dictionary and not much else.

    At any rate, the reason I mention it now is the consistent use of "malus" for "penalty" or "disadvantage".

  7. Nigel Greenwood said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

    What is particularly pleasing about this is that the French word escroc, pronounced almost the same as the English word "escrow", means "cheat, swindler". Presumably the banker who fouls up & has his bonus clawed back will mutter, in Latin, meum malum! ("my bad!")

  8. Nigel Greenwood said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

    The French definition of Malus as an insurance premium penalty imposed on accident-prone drivers points to a gap in English vocabulary. In the UK we talk of a "no-claims bonus", but insurers don't to my knowledge mention an "excessive-claims penalty".

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

    I will here plead for "clawback". It's a wonderfully graphic word I do not recall having encountered before, yet its meaning in context was instantly obvious.

  10. Don Campbell said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 5:42 pm


    Just because insurers don't mention an excessive claims penalty, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. If you make a lot of claims, your premiums will go up because your rating will go down.

    "No claims bonus" is merely marketing speak for the upside of a bonus-malus system. Marketers somehow forget to mention the downside.

  11. Don Campbell said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

    Bonus-malus appears to be established in actuarial literature by the late 1960s, e.g. Buhlmann in ASTIN Bulletin 1967.

    This type of premium system at least was in existence well before that, although the reference I found didn't indicate whether these early systems were called "bonus-malus" (or BMS):

    The BMS is nothing new in the insurance industry. (2) The United Kingdom and Scandinavia set up their first system in 1910, and Morocco, a country close to Tunisia, got its system in 1940.


  12. Toby said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

    Bobbie, your question is answered in the article – funds escrowed, with some removed when targets are not met. It seems a very clever way of lengthening the penalty cycle to defeat the short-term opportunists bred in such toxic hordes by American capitalism.

    Nigel, I like to think of "mea culpa" as "my bad" in Latin. :)

  13. nat said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

    "Malus" means apple-tree.
    "malum" means apple.

    Anyway, I wonder why "bonus" got imported instead of "bonum". The latter would be closer to the Latin. Of course, I've grown up with "bonus", so I'm used to it. But contrasting it with "malus" isn't a happy development. "Malus" (in this usage) sounds like a barbarism. "Malum" would be preferable.

    "bonus" in Latin, as a substantive, would refer to a good person, "malus", to a bad person.

  14. David H said,

    November 27, 2008 @ 1:41 am

    I think "malus" as the opposite of bonus has been a term of art in the world of hobby gamers (board gamers and non-computer RPG players) for quite some time.

    Here are some links to reviews from 2003 on http://www.rpg.net that use the world "malus" in that sense:

    I'm pretty sure the term had currency before then (certainly neither reviewer seems to treat the word with any additional weight or explanation), but I think it's always been considered a bit slangy.

  15. Laurent C said,

    November 27, 2008 @ 5:23 am

    @Doug Sundseth: In French RPG rulebooks too, penalties are generally called malus. Malus is the most obvious opposite of bonus I can think of.

    Oh, David H, searching rpg.net was a good idea.

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 27, 2008 @ 4:11 pm


    Yes, I've wondered about that: why bonus, not bonum?
    What's the implied masculine singular the adjective is agreeing with?
    (If it's the recipient, then presumably a woman should get a bona … let's not go there)

  17. Bobbie said,

    November 27, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

    I heard "clawback" in context last night on a show on Public TV (PBS) about the British royal family. A young man was saying that he had received benefits from the government even after he was no longer eligible, so the housing board demanded a clawback on his rent…..

  18. Philip Newton said,

    November 28, 2008 @ 6:25 am

    @Laurent C: Similarly with German RPG rulebooks. I remember reading "bonus/penalty" in AD&D rulebooks being referred to as "Bonus/Malus" in the German translation, for example.

    I would also not be surprised if, as Gregory Dyke said further up, the word – in the press release – originated from a French-speaker or German-speaker.

  19. harkness said,

    November 28, 2008 @ 8:45 am

    LL will adore this http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/nov/28/simon-heffer-daily-telegraph

  20. Lugubert said,

    November 29, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

    It took some wading through Google hits on insurance before refining the search confirmed my recollection. In Germany, one bonus/malus system is intended to create fair comparisons between high school grades for university entrance. If a state's average grades are above the total average, its students get a malus and the other way around. Of course, there will be states that argue that their students really have a better education than others, and contest the malus application…

  21. youtube video archive said,

    December 7, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

    I heard "clawback" in context last night on a show on Public TV (PBS) about the British royal family. A young man was saying that he had received benefits from the government even after he was no longer eligible, so the housing board demanded a clawback on his rent…..

  22. stripey_cat said,

    December 7, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

    Malus for the genus makes sense – gardeners are talking about the whole plant, not just the fruit.

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