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shameless pleading

Ruthless

Oldie but goodie.

Dear Word Detective:  Do you have information on the origin of the word “ruthless”? I was told that the origin of this word is from Scripture, The Book of Ruth. Ruth was merciful, considerate, loving and caring. The opposite, or to be “ruthless,” would certainly fit the definition of “ruth-less.” I would appreciate your comments. — Carolyn Perlman.

Now there’s a name I haven’t run into in a while, at least attached to anyone under 45 or so. But according to babynamewizard.com, Ruth was, back in the early years of the 20th century, the fifth most popular name for a girl baby in the US. By 2008, however, it ranked 257th. It’s just the opposite with my first name. In the 1950s, Evan ranked 507th, which is probably why I was in my twenties before I met another Evan. In fact, several of my teachers tried to convince me that my name was actually “Kevin.” At the moment, however, Evan ranks 38th in the US. I’m not sure how I feel about this, especially since Evan is becoming a popular name for girls. I guess I miss being special. Maybe I’ll change my name to Nigel (815th) or Cletus, which was 913th in the 1950s and seems to have faded entirely off the chart in the 1960s. Splendid isolation, rara avis, nonpareil, that’s the ticket.

The story you have heard about the word “ruthless,” although it seems to make perfect sense, is not true. There is no connection between “ruthless” and the name Ruth, which was a popular Hebrew name in Biblical times. But, I hear you ask, if the “ruth” in “ruthless” isn’t the Biblical Ruth, what does it mean? We don’t speak of nice people being endowed with lots of “ruth,” do we?

Well, not at the moment, but we used to. “Ruth” was a common word in Middle English, first appearing (as “reuthe”) around the 12th century, meaning “pity or compassion,” and in the 13th century we spoke of a person who was kind, charitable, and just generally felt your pain as being “ruthful.” (“Ruthful” has also been used at times to mean “inspiring compassion or pity,” i.e., pathetic, as well as “expressing grief” as in “ruthful weeping,” but these are secondary senses.)

A person who lacked those qualities of kindness and charity, whose only concern was for personal gain and never shed a tear for the victims of his greed, has been, since the early 14th century, known as “ruthless,” literally lacking the quality of “ruth.”

The “ruth” in “ruthful” and “ruthless” is a noun formed on the verb “to rue,” meaning “to feel sorrow or regret” (“And yet … no sooner was alone, Than she for loneliness her promise rued,” 1885), and which is still in wide use today (although perhaps not as much as it should be). “Rue,” in turn, came from the Old English “hreowan,” which meant “to afflict with sorrow, pity or regret,” and which was rooted in old Germanic and possibly Norse words. “Rue” is perhaps most often found today in phrases such as “rue the day” (or hour, etc.), meaning, of course, to regret a decisive event which took place at that time (“France, thou shalt rue this houre within this houre,” Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, 1595).

While “ruthless” is alive and well in popular usage today (and “ruthlessness” is even celebrated as a virtue on Wall Street), the sweet and gentle “ruthful” has almost entirely faded from our collective memory. The Oxford English Dictionary labels the word “archaic,” and its most recent citation for its use in print dates from the early 19th century. A search of Google News today for “ruthful” produces the epitaph “Your search – ruthful – did not match any documents,” which a quick perusal of the grim headlines confirms. It seems that this world could do with a “ruth transfusion” as soon as possible.

5 comments to Ruthless

  • Charlie N.

    There is an oblique connection between the word “ruthless” and the name “Ruth.” I recall a country song with the lyrics, “Now, I’m ruthless as can be, Ruthless since Ruth walked out on me.” It was heard in the 1950-60 era. It sounds like a Homer and Jethro song. Does anyone know for sure who sang it?

  • Dave Khan

    My father used to sing a song in which one verse went:

    I rode along on my motorbike
    With Ruth in back of me
    I hit a bump at ninety-five
    And I rode on ruthlessly

    I have no idea where he got the song, but that’s the kind of cornpone humor that appealed to my father.

  • Robin

    Evan: your explanation is perfect, as usual, and answers the question that suddenly burned inside me during class today. Or maybe my morning coffee was just too hot.

    The previous two commenters: LOL.

  • Tim

    I don’t suppose the word “ruin” may also be connected with this:

    “‘Rue’, in turn, came from the Old English ‘hreowan,’ which meant ‘to afflict with sorrow, pity or regret,’ “

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