In these most recent days, as Afghanistan crumbled around us like Samson pulling down the pillars, all too often in the reports coming back to us the word “ruthless” appeared. There is no need to look up the definition. We all know, and understand its meaning: cruel, showing no mercy, savage, remorseless, words that are all too accurate. What a horrible thing it is, to be “ruthless.”
Not so long ago, I posted a blog with the title of “Scruting the Inscrutable.” The blog evolved from a story I had read dealing with the fact that “inscrutable” is, technically, in-scrut-able, that is, “not able to be scruted.” And that led to a rather intriguing exposition on the ancient word, “scrut.”
I have to assume it was that exercise that caused me to realize, without having ever before thought of it in such terms, that the word “ruthless” means, simply, ruth-less—“having no ruth.”
And thus, the realization bubbled up in my mind. I never once had given thought to the basic root of the word, “ruthless.” We find that people all too often can be “ruthless.” Feeling no remorse, having no pity, mean, cruel. We all understand “ruthless.” It’s a bad thing, being ruthless. But never do I see mention being made of such people “having no ruth.”
Come to think of it, neither have I ever seen anyone described as being its opposite, having “ruth,” or being “ruthful.” Never do we hear, “Oh, he’s such a nice guy, very ruthful, in fact.”
Why is it that we so often lose sight of our roots? Some effort is made, now and then, to remind us of our roots as a people. Several very successful movies and TV programs have explored our history, our roots, as a people. But no one seems to give two hoots about our roots, when it comes to words. I sense that we’ve lost a lot of the nuance, even the beauty and depth, of our language as a result.
So, I pondered, why do we experience people who are “ruthless,” but never who are “ruthful?” Without question, there are good people still around. Would none of them achieve the level of being “ruth?” My mom was Ruth, and she seemed pretty nice. But was Ruth not ruth?
Could the word, I wondered, have ultimately descended from the Biblical character of Ruth, who so memorably promised her mother-in-law, Naomi, that “Whither thou goest, I will go?” Ruth must have been rather “ruthful.” But that made little sense, so it was back to the Internet for an etymology search. What I found was that “ruth-less” simply means “without ruth.” Well, duh.
But “ruth,” it seems, comes from several ancient roots, or sources; Germanic, Scandinavian, and of course, Latin. Most of those roots I can neither spell nor pronounce, but all meant basically the same as the Latin, “reuthe,” meaning to feel pity, or compassion. It’s from those roots that we get “rue,” which means to regret, to be sorrowful.
And those are all good things. To feel pity, to have compassion, to feel regret or sorrowful for bad things we’ve done, all benefit both the giver and the receiver of such things. In my brief travels down etymology lane, on this subject, I also learned that, in fact, “ruthful” was a commonly used word that fell into disuse circa 1700s. Shucks. I rather like the word.
All of which left me wondering, especially in today’s tumultuous world, what can lead a person, even a complete society or nation, to have no pity or compassion, to feel no remorse, no regret, for ones actions? How can there be so little “ruth” among them?
It’s quite unlikely my mom ever knew her name had such deep roots, and was such a wonderful, meaningful word. I wish she were still with us. I’d like to tell her, that.