The Grammarphobia Blog

Nothing but the ruth

Q: I tried to phone you at WNYC, but couldn’t get through. In frustration I tracked down your website. Ergo, this question: We know what “ruthless” means, but what is “ruth” and where does it come from? I thought at first of Old Norse, but I speak Swedish and Danish and don’t believe that’s the source.

A: I’m so glad you found us! As it happens, I’ve already written a blog item that discusses “ruth,” “gruntled,” and other linguistic relics. The noun “ruth”’ is an old word that’s rarely seen now, except as part of the word “ruthless.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) do have entries on “ruth,” defining it as compassion for the misery of others or sorrow for one’s faults.

But just because a word appears in a dictionary doesn’t mean it gets around much. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have any published references for the usage since the 19th century. And I don’t recall seeing or hearing “ruth” in recent years except in attempts to be funny.

The blog entry doesn’t say so (though it should have), but the noun “ruth” (circa 1175) comes from a much earlier noun, “rue,” first recorded in Old English (as hreow) in Beowulf in the early 8th century. It meant sorrow or regret.

The verb “rue” was first seen in Old English (as hreowan) the following century, in the year 888. Similar words existed in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and other Germanic languages, and there was a related form in Old Norse (so says the OED).

In case you’re interested, I’ve written a blog item on another word that’s rarely seen without its appendage, “scrutable,” which I hope describes this answer.

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