Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Coolth' Makes a Comeback

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Coolth' Makes a Comeback

Article excerpt

When a friend showed up without me at one of our usual hangouts the other week, it was remarked that she was therefore "ruthless."

We had a chuckle over it but it sparked a discussion: Why do some words seem to be used only in the negative? Dictionaries do list ruthful, but how often do you hear it in conversation? Or see it in print?

It's derived from ruth as a common noun, meaning compassion for the misery of another. A second meaning is sorrow for one's own faults, or remorse.

All of which is enough to make me point out that although scholars are divided on the exact etymology of "Ruth" as a given name, I've found no source that traces it to the common noun.

Listless is another one of these odd socks. And it does not refer to the way you feel when you get to the supermarket and realize you have left your shopping list on the kitchen counter. ("I can just picture it there where I must have left it! Now if only I can make out whether it had 'balsamic vinegar' on it!")

No, the list you're lacking in this sense is desire. "The wind bloweth where it listeth." The wind blows where it wants to, we might say today. List is a relative of lust, which originally meant simply desire but has so narrowed that it really can't be used nowadays except to describe desires of the baser sort.

We speak of a damaged ship as "listing" - leaning before it keels over and sinks. This usage, too, seems to be linked to the idea that the ship tilts in the direction it "desires" to go - as if, with its hull punctured by a torpedo, it has any choice in the matter.

Unwittingly is another word we meet more often than its positive counterpart: "Unfamiliar with the security system in his brother-in- law's house, he opened a window in the guest room and unwittingly set off an alarm." Built on the archaic verb wit, meaning "to know," unwittingly is often used to signal lack of intent. …

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