Friday, May 14, 2010

How the book of Ruth impacted the English language

Over the past few weeks, in the runup to the festival of Shavuot which falls next week, some friends and I have been studying the book of Ruth.

Practically every single name in the book (people and places) seems symbolic, with a hidden meaning reflecting on their nature: Naomi (connected to pleasantness), Boaz (strength), Mahlon (sickness) and Chilyon (weakness or shame), Orpah (back of the neck - as she turned her back on Naomi), even Bethlehem (house of bread - although at the beginning of the story there is a famine and later in the story it is the scene of the harvest), etc etc etc.

The meaning of the word 'Ruth' is the least clear. Some connect it to friendship - Reut.

Today, I came across a fascinating piece by the Chief Rabbi from 2005, about the story of Ruth. While he sheds no light on the meaning of her name in Hebrew, he does explain what it has come to mean in English:

One Hebrew word epitomises the book: chessed, usually translated as “loving kindness”. It is what links the book’s main characters. In fact, it added a word to the English language. In Middle English, “ruth” meant kindness. Today only its negation remains: the word “ruthless”.

Sadly, the Online Etymology Dictionary says it originates from 'Reuthe', or 'Pity, Compassion', which it traces back to the verb 'to rue', but why let that get in the way of a good story.....

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