Put him on a treadmill and cut your utility bills in half.

Dear Word Detective: A few days ago my youngest son was in his playroom throwing toys, kicking them around and falling into piles of them. Joyfully! When I asked him to explain this behavior he said simply, “Just causing a ruckus.” Like I should have known, duh. He said he learned the term from his teacher in school that day and thought it was ok to cause one at home since he and his partners in crime couldn’t do it at school. I’m still dizzy from that logic. So where does “ruckus” come from? Does the word “ruck” have anything to do with it? From the dictionary meanings of either word I didn’t get a real connection. — Michael.

Well, there you go. Your son is still in the guileless phase when children see no reason to prevaricate. Enjoy it while it lasts, and just be glad he doesn’t come home and announce, “My teacher says I’m in-cor-rig-ible. What does that mean?” Anyway, eventually you’ll be lucky to get him to admit to anything, no matter how obvious it is (“Did you shave the dog?” “What dog?”).

A “ruckus” is, as your son knows, a disturbance, fuss, uproar or commotion. On the spectrum of, shall we say, “unstructured activities,” a “ruckus” is at the mild end, perhaps a bit more unruly than a “kerfuffle,” but less dramatic than a “brouhaha” and certainly less serious than a “melee.” A “ruckus” is a minor disturbance, full of sound and a little fury, but rarely resulting in serious consequences.

Considering that human beings have been acting up since Friday night cave brawls, “ruckus” is a surprisingly recent arrival, first appearing in the late 19th century. Interestingly, “ruckus” seems to have arisen as a blending of two earlier words, “rumpus” and “ruction.”

“Rumpus” will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the US in the 1950s, because what you call your son’s “playroom” would back then have been called a “rumpus room.” This was a place, often in the basement of a suburban house, where children and teenagers were left more or less to their own devices. The word “rumpus” dates back to the 18th century, and may have arisen as an alteration of “robustious,” meaning “boisterous” (and related to “robust”). Or “rumpus” may have been just someone’s fanciful invention that took hold and spread.

“Ruction” is a bit more recent than “rumpus,” first appearing in the early 19th century, but its origin is even more of a mystery. “Ruction,” meaning a disorderly tumult, may have started out simply as a clipped form of “insurrection.”

Your hunch to look at “ruck” as a root of “ruckus” was sound, but a dead end. There are five separate “rucks” in English, only one of which, a shortened form of “ruckus,” has anything to do with disorderly conduct. The word “rucksack,” meaning a bag or pack carried on one’s back, is taken directly from the German word “rucksack,” based on “rucken” meaning “back.”

4 comments on this post.
  1. Tom Wolfe:

    “Rumpus” is also well known to a more recent group of people — fans of the Coen brothers and their oevre of offbeat films. “What’s the rumpus?” was a repeated catch-phrase in their gangster film “Miller’s Crossing.”

  2. Holger:

    The modern German word for “back” is “Rücken”, with an umlaut and (like all nouns in German) capitalized. But apparently, “Rucksack” was coined in a dialect where “Rucken” may have been used without the umlaut. And capitalization was not standardized back then, so your etymology is, of course, correct.

    Just for completeness…

  3. Monica:

    I wonder if “ruckus” is from a dialect pronunciation of “raucous” – a raucous disturbance.

  4. Francesco Motta:

    There is a word in Arabic “raqqas” (pronounced ruckus) which means a frenetic loud dance involving a lot of people … or a messy crowd … so is it possible that English took the word from Arabic or Arabic took it from English? possibly through Urdu in India?

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