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A "standard" definition is something like "cruel," or "remorseless."

But what does this have to do with "ruth" (or lack thereof)? Is this a reference to a kind person named Ruth?

Perhaps a clue may be found from the German Rücksicht, which translates literally into "back sight," or "looking back." Could it then be that a "ruthless" person is actually one who plows ahead, without "looking back" at what the consequences may be?

And how would this evolve into the "standard" definition?

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Be careful when trying to find cognate terms in other languages based on orthography. In this case 'Rücksicht' has no relation to the word 'ruthless' other than the first consonant. There are patterns of sound changes that are common and predictable based on the articulation of sounds among other things. You could get a good start on some of the basic concepts by from here: [Sound Change][1] and [Phonological Change][2].[1]: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_change [2]: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonological_change –  Mark T Aug 6 '11 at 2:35
    
@Mark T: I was doing what I call a "permutation analysis (searching possible permutations; the reference to Ruth was another example).Rücksichtlos is quite plausible in this regard. "No look back" could be construed as remorseless, if not cruel. But rue and "rueless" is the better root word. –  Tom Au Aug 7 '11 at 14:46
    
@unreason: That's a good link. But it probably took the answer below to produce the "light bulb" moment in my head. –  Tom Au Aug 7 '11 at 14:47
    
@TomAu Hi Tom, just wanted to let you know that the "Italian Language & Usage" proposal has restarted. Since you committed to the previous proposal, maybe you are still interested. See you! (I hope this comment is not considered as spam, if so I beg your pardon) –  Lucius Sep 10 '12 at 8:10
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5 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The meaning of ruthless, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is:

Feeling or showing no pity or compassion; pitiless, unsparing, merciless, remorseless.

The etymology is a thornier issue. For ruthless, the etymology provided is simply "ruth n. + -less suffix." So, we turn to ruth:

The quality of being compassionate; the feeling of sorrow for another; compassion, pity. Also with for.

Its etymology is:

rue v. + -th suffix, perhaps after early Scandinavian (compare Old Icelandic hryggð).

Rue here means:

To affect with sorrow or regret; to distress, grieve. Freq. with it as subject and clause as complement, and without it and with following clause as implicit subject. Now arch.

In the OED, the etymology for this word stretches to—I kid you not—five paragraphs. I'll give you the first of those, which contains most of the important information, I think:

A merging of two distinct but closely related words from the same Germanic base: (i) an Old English strong verb of Class II (hrēowan), cognate with Old Frisian riōwa, riouwa (strong verb; West Frisian rouwe, rouje, weak), Middle Dutch rouwen, rowen, ruwen, rauwen (inflected both strong and weak; Dutch rouwen, weak), Old Saxon hreuwan (strong; Middle Low German rǖwen, rūwen, rouwen, weak), Old High German hriuwan, riuwan (strong; Middle High German riuwen, rūwen, strong, German reuen, weak); and, (ii) an Old English weak verb of Class II (hrēowian), cognate with Old Saxon hriwōn, hrewōn, Old High German hriuwōn, riuwōn; compare also (with different suffixes) Old High German riuwēn (weak Class III), and Old Icelandic hryggva, hryggja (weak Class I); further etymology uncertain: perhaps related to Sanskrit karuṇa pitiable, woeful. The diphthongal West Germanic stem forms do not reflect a Proto-Germanic diphthong, but rather show the result of the operation of Holtzmann's Law (compare the Old Icelandic form); this proves that the conjugation as a strong verb of Class II must be an analogical development in West Germanic. Compare also from the same Germanic base the adjectives Old English hrēow, Old Saxon hriuwi, Old Icelandic hryggr, all in sense ‘sad, sorrowful’.

The following paragraphs are even more technical, dealing with issues like strong and weak verbs in Old English and the decline of the Middle English diphthong ēu. Of particular note: none of them say anything about the name Ruth. Whether ruth and the name Ruth have a shared root I can't say for sure, but it seems to me that the OED's etymology suggests against that hypothesis.

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So the correct root word could be "rue," and "ruthless, would mean "rueless." Makes perfect sense. –  Tom Au Aug 5 '11 at 17:38
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+1 for having access (and using) better references. –  simchona Aug 5 '11 at 18:17
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The etymology of ruthless doesn't have much to do with the Biblical Ruth. EtymOnline has:

early 14c., from reuthe "pity, compassion" (late 12c.), formed from reuwen "to rue" (see rue (v.)) on the model of true/truth, etc. Ruthful (early 13c.) has fallen from use since late 17c. except as a deliberate archaism

This does sound similar to the female name "Ruth", but in actuality "Ruth" and "ruthless" probably do not share a root. Again, from EtymOnline:

fem. proper name, biblical ancestor of David, from Heb. Ruth, probably a contraction of reuth "companion, friend, fellow woman."

Ruth is an ancient Hebrew name, whereas reuthe (root of "ruthless") dates back only to the 12th century. It is possible, though I have not found conclusive evidence, that reuthe derives from Ruth--but this does not imply that ruthless directly derives from the name Ruth.

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I have no special knowledge of comparative linguistics relevant to this one, but I rather suspect there's no causal connection at all between ME ruthe/reuth and the Hebrew name Ruth (which seems to simply mean "[female]companion" - implying nothing about such a person's attitudes). –  FumbleFingers Aug 5 '11 at 16:54
    
But reuthe, meaning "pity, compassion," is an Old English word, whereas reuth, meaning "companion, friend, fellow woman," is Hebrew. Besides the fact that the definitions you've given don't seem particularly similar, English is part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, whereas Hebrew is part of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Do you know of any evidence of a connection between the word and the name? –  Nicholas Aug 5 '11 at 17:01
    
Er…I mean…what FumbleFingers said. –  Nicholas Aug 5 '11 at 17:04
    
I find it unlikely (though possible) that Ruth in Hebrew derives from Reuth, because it doesn't follow the usual contraction rules. It's hard to know for sure because the words are so old, but a (possibly) more likely derivation for Ruth in Hebrew connects it to Ruts, which means run, distancing it even more from the Germanic-rooted ruth. My source is in Hebrew: hebrewetymology.com. –  shovavnik May 30 '13 at 10:19
    
Also, I minor correction: reuth in Hebrew does not mean "female companion". It means companionship, irrespective of sex or gender, even though the word itself is female, simply because all nouns in Hebrew have gender. The word has contractions for both a female companion and a male companion, and is used today more in the sense of friendship. –  shovavnik May 30 '13 at 10:27
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I can also see a connection between reuthe and ruth in the Bible since the Ruth in the Bible showed compassion for her unhappy mother-in-law by staying with her and not deserting her by going back to her own people after her mother-in-law's husband and sons had died.

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Welcome to the site. Thanks for your answer. An upvote to get you going. –  Tom Au Feb 14 '12 at 14:02
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Well, the Bible was written/composed/handed down a few thousand years ago. The split between Semitic and Germanic languages occurred probably more than 4000 years before that, possibly as much as 20000 years earlier. It's possible but highly unlikely that the word "jumped over" from one language group to another. Also, whether Ruth showed compassion or behaved from some other motive is a question of interpretation, and not directly indicated in the text itself, which does not actually use any of the Hebrew words for compassion. –  shovavnik May 30 '13 at 10:36
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Ruth may be the apocryphal character of the Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi who refused to leave her mother-in-law when she was forced to return to Judea. As a Moabite, Ruth would have been a target of scorn and hatred by the Jews. However, knowning this, she remained the kind and attentive servant to her mother-in-law in this hostile social environment. Her Name came to be synonomous with kindness. Perhaps the addition of the suffix -less would come to denote a description of being without Ruth or without kindness; therefore a lack of pity and compassion.

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It seems likely (as others have said) that ruthless cames from Scandinavian sources, and the Hebrew name Ruth is purely coincidental. And you need to be careful using the word apocryphal in a Biblical context. –  TimLymington Jun 21 '12 at 20:20
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The Bible doesn't say anything about Ruth being kind or attentive. It says that she declared that she would follow Naomi anywhere she went. Compassion, pity, kindness, and attention are all subject to interpretation, as is the question of whether or not she would have been hated and whether the social environment would have been hostile. At least in Hebrew, her name is definitely not synonymous with kindness, and most native Hebrew speakers will tell you that they don't know the origin of the word. They will not associate it with compassion. –  shovavnik May 30 '13 at 10:42
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"R" denotes a moving out and away from an original source. "U" comes into play as the movement away from the source softens and transforms the original place, allowing for a shift in the observed truth. As this occurs, the ability to act from another source allows for a shift in the point of original interjection and holds a new vision. This shift lifts the point of focus, causing the original source to not occupy the same site. "The legend of rue lives on in playing cards, where the symbol for the suit of clubs is said to be modeled on a leaf of rue." Rue discourages fleas and other pests from being in the space occupied by people. It implies replacement and displacement, attributes of ruthless behaviors.

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Weird, but interesting. –  TRiG Oct 26 '13 at 23:14
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