~ Or: This has absolutely nothing to do with the Golden Girls

Have you ever been told that you shall “rue the day” when something x or activity y?  Probably not unless you’re the kind of person who would do things that would cause you to rue a day in which that thing is done.  Because really, all y’all reading this are nice people.  Good and wholesome.  And all that stuff.  Sure, you might make a mistake here or there.  You might even unintentionally offend someone or their sensibilities.  Those things happen.  But to actually commit an act that would cause you to legitimately rue a day?  That’s some hardcore stuff right there.

I like diving into idioms to look up their origins and word meanings and, oddly, this one took me down a rabbit hole I was not expecting to see.  Unlike many of the idioms I’ve looked into thus far, the digging for this one gets weird.  It deviates from the typical “this is the origin of the phrase” findings and starts to focus on the actual origins of the word “rue” and some very interesting subcategories come up.

Welcome to my brain dump!

How or why does one rue the day?

We’re going to start with a basic usage of the phrase here before getting really deep into the concept of “ruing”.  To rue is to have regret over something.  To deplore or lament.  Bemoan.  Bewail.  Other things that start with “Be.” I feel like at this point we’re totally opening up a massive can of worms for all things we can do to the English language right this moment by starting lamentation words with “Be” that would otherwise be overlooked.  Beweep.  Begnash.  Becry.  Besob. Besnivel. Bewhimper.

To quote Captain America: “I could do this all day.”

Side note: I swear I’m going to have to find ways to use “Besnivel” and “Bewhimper” in upcoming posts because that level of effrontery cracks me up and only you who are reading this right now will have any clue what’s up.

Where was I?

Back to the point

Ahh yes.  To rue is to regret*.   To rue the day you must have some form of sorrow.  Except in this case, to rue the day generally is thrown out at a recipient as a threat of some form.  “You’ll rue the day when you publish a blog post in excess of 2,000 words” as an example.  Which may or may not be true.  It might go into a book hypothetically called “101 ways to not retain a readership audience.” Or another example could be “you’ll rue the day you start adding sriracha sauce to your cheeseburgers” because that could actually be true.  Especially if you find that you like it.  Because then you’ll do so for the rest of time while having some degree of remorse later when it comes back to bite you.

A fun example on YouTube is an interesting video where a stuntman was made to rue the day he challenged Bruce Lee over a form of martial arts. There’s a good lesson in that: don’t challenge Bruce Lee over martial arts. <insert wide eyed emoji here>

So. To be told that you will rue the day is to be warned that you’re not gonna like whatever the thing is. You may yet rue the day you ever subscribed to this blahg…

*we’re just NOT going to go down the rabbit hole of how one “grets” in the first place in order to have a repeat performance whereupon one would regret. Or gret again.

Origins of the word Rue

Again, completely agnostic of the Golden Girls and not to be confused with the French word for “street,” the origins of the word ‘rue’ are actually quite fascinating!  What I wanted to find was the earliest uses of the phrase in question.  What I found instead was a clinic in linguistic evolution and common usage.  So down that trail we go!

The word “rue” comes from the very very ye olde English word “hrēow**,” which is said to mean “sorrow.”  This word dates way back to before the 12th century and can be used as both a noun and a verb.  Or at least it could then.  Because it can’t now because nobody uses it. Fast forward to Middle English and by then it has evolved into “reue,” “reuen,” “rewen.”  Given the region and the times, there exists a whole mess of similar origins and usages (ancient language thievery) and I’ll list some of them here because that’s the kind of person I am today:

  • Proto-Germanic *hrewwō (“pain, sadness, regret, repentance”)
  • Scots rew (“rue”), West Frisian rouw (“sadness”), Dutch rouw (“mourning, sadness”)
  • German Reue (“repentance, regret, remorse, contrition”)
  • Old Norse hryggja (“to distress, grieve”)

Pronunciations are approximate.  I beg your pardon for any monstrous bastardization of these native languages.

The meaning remained the same but the spelling, pronunciation, and overall linguistic manipulation definitely evolved throughout the centuries.  Middle and Modern English appearances are not all that dissimilar when all is said and done for this word.  The commonality of usage has definitely changed over the centuries though.  We don’t typically rue things in the course of casual conversation these days.

However! There was a fork in the road that took me to a very very different direction than I was planning on going.  Which leads us to the next section.

** that’s gonna be fun for the audio version

What do Rue and Ruth have to do with each other?

Worth noting: There is no main character in Golden Girls named Ruth.  Let’s just get that one out of the way straightaway. There is a character named Rue in “Euphoria” but since her name isn’t Ruth we’re not going there either.

I used to joke with a friend of mine that an æffectless individual who lacked any semblance of compassion or effulgence was “completely and utterly without ruth.” This was my silly way of making too many words out of the word we know as “Ruthless.”  Fast forward to several years later and the writing of this blog entry and apparently there is a potential link between the ruth involved in ruthless and the origins of the rue.

Stay with me here.

Ancient links

Etymologists are conflicted about these origins.  Which is fine, it gives us something to banter about at the coffee table.  So let’s run with this anyway because it’s fun.

We use the term “ruthless” commonly in our regular vernacular.  (something something “Earnest Goes to School.” Hey, Vernacular!  No?  Too soon? Ok.) While the usage of its counterpoint of “ruthful” has fallen completely out of favor – indeed, even spell check is not a fan of it – ruthless persists as a description of something that is effectively bereft of remorse or restraint.

With me so far?  Great!

One argument of the link between the two is that “ruth” in the context of mercy can be considered to be “rue” without the “th” suffix.  Where -I- get lost in that is that applying a th suffix shouldn’t reverse the meaning of a root word. Grow -> growth.  True -> truth. (side note: look up later if “true” and “rue” have similar origins.  see how these things happen?)  Heal -> health.  Steal -> stealth.  You get the idea. Adding th maintains the meaning of the core word.

Research suggests that hrēow and rewen are somehow the roots for both the effusively merciful ruth/reuthe and the effete sorrow of rue. Somehow the word ruth in this context has, at its root, the origins of rue.

Here’s the thing I can’t figure out.  Digging through this online shows a variety of sources that come to this conclusion except that’s where it stops.  I cannot for the life of me find a good source of historical linkage that completes the circle and it’s driving me bonkers.   If you happen to be reading this and know where I can dig further into the subject, I’m all eyes!  Please let me know!

Ruthful conclusion

Seriously.  Ruthful needs to get back into usage somehow.  I’m an army of one.

In any event, to rue the day or hour or minute is a somewhat common(ish) phrase.  To rue by itself less common.  Wouldn’t it be fun to break the mold and start using “rue” outside of the context of a framing of time in which one shall rue?  It sounds like fun to ME.  I beg you to not bewhimper my right to define my own weird brand of hilarity.  I’m certainly not going to rue the effort that went into digging through resources to get more information on the subject.  Hopefully you enjoyed learning something new and exciting with me!

Until next week.

-= george =-



Are we having fun yet?

About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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