Morphology for swine

Today’s Pearls Before Swine:

Pig indulges in resurrecting “lost positives” (ruth from ruthless, gruntled from disgruntled) — there’s a site on which people nominate lost positives, often quite fancifully — but gets the morphological structure of ruthless wrong.

On the derivational suffix -less, from Michael Quinion’s affixes site:

Words in -less are nearly all adjectives. The great majority come from nouns and have the sense of lacking or being without that thing or quality: bottomless, childless, defenceless, lawless, pointless, spineless, strapless, toothless.

… The suffix is freely used to create new adjectives at need, to the extent that only a proportion of them can be recorded in dictionaries. Many are invented to fill a momentary need: girlfriendless, handbrakeless, monarchless, passwordless, sidewalkless.

(And in linguistics, r-less ‘non-rhotic’, versus r-ful ‘rhotic’ (of dialects or speakers).)

Pig is treating ruthless as based on an adjective ruth, but we should be looking for a noun ruth (so, not “We’re pretty ruth”, but “We have pretty much ruth”). And that in fact is the history. From NOAD2: ruthless ‘having or showing no pity or compassion for others’ is based on:

ruth   noun archaic   a feeling of pity, distress, or grief.

ORIGIN Middle English: from the verb rue [‘bitterly regret’], probably influenced by Old Norse hrygth.


3 Responses to “Morphology for swine”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Robert Coren in Facebook:

    I would have used “ruthful”

    Excellent choice.

  2. Ellen K. Says:

    “pretty much ruth”? Is that grammatical? It isn’t for me. “Much” would be okay (for nouns describing qualities), but “pretty much” just doesn’t work. “Pretty much” has to modify a verb, and has to go before it, leaving me expecting a verb in -ed form (or equivalent).

  3. Bob Richmond Says:

    “Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth:
    And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth.”

    From John Milton’s “Lycidas”, famously quoted by Thomas Wolfe.

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