Saturday, April 4, 2009

Word Tidbits: Ruthless

When writing descriptions of an evil foe, terms like tireless, relentless, fearless, and ruthless come to mind. Of those, most are easily defined. The -less suffix indicates that the noun so described lacks the root word, as a tireless leader does not tire and a fearless enemy attacks without fear. What, however, is a ruthless tirant without?

The word ruthless comes to us not from the name Ruth but from the twelfth-century word “reuwen”, a verb meaning “to rue” or regret. Over the next couple of centuries, it grew into “reuthe”, a word for pity or compassion, much as the adjective “true” grew “truth” as a noun.

Reuwen has fallen out of use, as has reuthe or ruth as a word for mercy. Ruthless, however, turned out to be such a striking and useful word that its use has continued for another seven or eight hundred years. If case you wonder, ruthful was used for many years to indicate a kind and benignant individual. Apparently, such folks have become nigh impossible to find and the word dropped from language radar in the eighteenth century except when a writer or speaker intentionally meant to use an archaic word.