Facebook Twitter



Question: I'm dying to know: was "ruthless" ever used without the "-less"? Was there ever a "ruthsome" or "ruthful"? Things that keep word nerds like me up at night are frightening, let me tell you.

Answer: Yes, Virginia, there is a "ruth"! It's more than a century older than "ruthless," and it hasn't seen much use in the 20th century, but it's still a valid word. "Ruth" can mean either "compassion for the misery of another" or "sorrow for one's own faults." "Ruthful," "ruthfully" and "ruthfulness" are other "ruth-" words that have declined in use just in this century. In addition, there are "ruthly" and "ruthness," which have been in disuse for several centuries and are now considered obsolete. But sorry, we have no evidence that there has ever been a "ruthsome."

You may be interested to know that "ruth" descends from the Middle English verb "ruen," which means "to rue" ("to feel sorrow or regret"); "ruth" is not related to the name Ruth, which comes from Hebrew.

Sleep well.

Question: The etymology in my dictionary for the word "glamour" says that it comes from "grammar." Can you please explain?

Answer: In classical antiquity the Greek and Latin ancestors of the English word "grammar" were used in reference not only to the study of language but also to the study of literature in its broad sense. In the medieval period, moreover, the meaning of Latin "grammatica" and its derivatives in other languages was extended to include learning in general. Since almost all learning was couched in a language not spoken or understood by the unschooled populace, it was commonly believed that such subjects as magic and astrology were included in this broad sense of "grammatica." Scholars tended to be viewed with awe and more than a little suspicion by ordinary people, a state of affairs which no doubt made it easier for many Elizabethan playgoers to accept the reality of Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and Robert Greene's Roger Bacon in their dealings with the devil and mastery of the black arts.

This connection between "grammar" and magic was evident in a number of languages, and in Scotland by the 18th century a form of "grammar," altered to "glamer" or "glamour," meant "a magic spell or enchantment." As "glamour" passed into more extended English usage, it came to mean "an elusive, mysteriously exciting and often illusory attractiveness that stirs one's imagination and appeals to one's taste for the unconventional, the unexpected, the colorful or the exotic." Now the word has been further generalized to mean simply "an alluring or fascinating personal attractiveness."

Question: I once heard a story some years ago about the origin of the word "ammonia." As I recall, it came from the name of some Greek or Roman god. Can you verify this?

Answer: The history of "ammonia' starts with Amen, a god in Egyptian mythology variously represented as a ram with great horns, as a creature with a ram's head and a human body or as simply a man - either enthroned or standing. To the Greeks, Amen became known as Ammon. His chief temple and oracle were at an oasis in the Libyan desert near Memphis.

It is said that near this temple a cesspool was located, where the urine of camels was collected. For centuries in Egypt camel's urine, soot and sea salt were heated together to form sal ammoniac, which in its Latin form literally means "salt of Ammon."

To designate the gas produced when sal ammoniac is heated with an alkali, the Swedish chemist Tobern Olaf Bergman in 1782 coined the New Latin term "ammonia." In less than two decades "ammonia" entered English.

The modern names of other chemical elements and compounds have their origins in the obscure law of the ancient world. Another example is "cadmium." In Greek mythology Cadmus was the reputed founder of the Greek city of Thebes. His most celebrated exploit was his battle with a man-eating dragon. After slaying the monster, he removed its teeth and shoveled some of them in the ground. From these sown teeth sprang up a company of armedmen. Cadmus reacted by surreptitiously striking them with stones; the men, suspecting one another, began a mutual slaughter until only five remained. With these five men Cadmus founded his new city of Thebes.

The ancient citadel of Thebes was named Cadmea in his honor. It was in this Greek city that the ancients first discovered the substance known to us as zinc oxide.

It was not until centuries later, in 1817, that the German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer discovered the presence of another metal in a zinc compound, which in this case happened to be zinc carbonate. Stromeyer called this new discovery "cadmium," the old name for any zinc-rich ore.