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Here's some 'ruth' for the 'ruthless'

Recently, two listeners, including one named Ruth, asked us what's going on with "ruthless." For starters, a ruthless action is one that's clearly without ruth, but can an action also be full of ruth?

The answer is  yes, something can be ruthful, but here's a better question -- have you ever actually used that word?

There's no need to be ruthful if your answer is no. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are over 2,000 instances of "ruthless" and zero instances of "ruthful."

But ruthful wasn't always such a pariah.

Ruthful, meaning merciful or full of sorrow, can be found back to the 13th century in English. Ruthless, meaning having no compassion or pity, goes back to the 14th century.

Interestingly, the word "ruth" is related to the very old Germanic verb "rue." 

Rue means to affect with sorrow or to grieve. It's been used in different ways throughout the centuries, but generally when we hear it today, it has to do with looking back on something with regret.  For example, "I rue the day Cousin Oliver showed up on the Brady Bunch."

Shark jumping aside, if you take "rue" and tack on the suffix "th," you get ruth. In this case, the suffix is the same one we see in other verbs that have been transformed into nouns -- including growth, health, and truth. 

So, that's how we get ruth -- a noun meaning mercy or sorrow. From there, tack on a couple more suffixes, and we get ruthless, meaning without compassion or mercy, and the long forgotten ruthful which means to be filled with compassion or pity.

Is there a word that involves your name and you want to know why? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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