With no apologies to Stephen Pastis, creator of Pearls Before Swine, I offer this week’s Word of the Week — a post that was written weeks before this strip appeared:
I’m addicted to Words with Friends, the online Scrabble-like game. I say Scrabble–like, because the goal is the same: to create a crossword puzzle with the letters dealt by the computer. But Words seems to have its own rules, which I have yet to discover. The Scrabble Dictionary is essential to my playing the Scrabble board game, but Words does not always allow words that are found in the Scrabble Dictionary. One strategy I sometimes use is randomly placing letters and hoping the computer accepts them. I did just that the other day and discovered a new word (for me): ruth.
Now, I know the proper name, Ruth. I have an ex-sister-in-law with that name and am, of course, familiar with the biblical character, Ruth, wife of Boaz and ancestor of Jesus.
I know ruthless, but had always considered ruthless one of those words like disgruntled for which there was no root word.
Using my knowledge of prefixes and suffixes, I might deduce that, if ruthless means without mercy, then ruth is merciful, gracious. And that is how Merriam-Webster defines it: “compassion for another’s misery; remorseful.” The American Heritage Dictionary also notes that it is an archaic word, original to 13th century Middle English, which might explain why I wasn’t familiar with the root form of the word.
What connection does ruth have to the biblical Ruth? Very little etymologically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Ruth is an old Hebrew name, while rue is the merging of two related but distinct words of Germanic and English origins. OED defines rue as “to affect with sorrow or regret; to distress, grieve.” To rue the day is to regret it, to wish it had never happened.
The Old English verb implies repentance, while the related Dutch word refers to mourning, and the German variation, reue, remorse. Those who try to make a connection between reuthe (a variation on the Old English) and the biblical ruth argue that reuthe means pity and compassion while the Hebrew variant, reuth, means companion or friend. In the Old Testament, Ruth showed compassion to her mother-in-law when she left her own home and returned to Bethlehem with Naomi. This story of one person setting aside her own inclinations for the benefit of another is a good trigger for remembering the meaning of a word that has fallen out of common use.
While ruth is no longer part of our contemporary vocabulary, its antonym ruthless is all too familiar. We speak of, and live with the pain and disappointment of ruthless killers, dictators, and political maneuvers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if ruth made a comeback — not necessarily in our vocabulary, but in our lives with one another?