Dear Word Detective: Where does the word “rude” come from? Is someone who is “rude” someone who is “rue-ed,” as in one regrets his or her company because they are annoying? Or is there a completely different origin? — Aimee.
Well, it’s time to say it again — I have the smartest readers on the planet. That explanation would never have occurred to me. Then again, it never occurred to me to release the parking brake before driving to the Post Office last week. But I do think “ru-ed” is truly inspired. However, I notice from your email address that you’re writing from France, so you have an advantage, since almost every street sign there includes the word “Rue.” Incidentally, do you folks have a “Rue de Rue,” perhaps some run-down alley where Parisians go to wallow in regret? I know Edith Piaf (“Non, je ne regrette rien”) wasn’t big on second thoughts, but surely “if only” has its tear-stained equivalent in French. Somebody is drinking all that absinthe.
Oh right, you had a question. How rude of me. No, there is, sadly, no connection between “rue” and “rude.”
There are actually two “rues” in English. One is a sort of evergreen shrub, “Ruta graveolens” to its friends, the leaves of which were once used to make medicinal tea which tasted terrible and made for equally terrible puns on the “regret” sort of “rue” (“Least time and triall make thee account Rue a most bitter hearbe,” 1583).
The other “rue,” a verb today meaning “to feel regret,” first appeared in Old English from Germanic roots (as “hreowan”) meaning “to make someone feel regret or penitence.” It wasn’t until the 13th century that “rue” took on the modern meaning of “feel sorry about.” There is also a noun form of “rue,” meaning “a regret or misgiving” but it is now considered archaic. Another noun formed from “rue,” namely “ruth” (meaning “pity”), didn’t fare much better, and is today known only in its negative form, “ruthless.”
“Rude” first appeared in English in the 14th century, derived from the Latin “rudis” (“unformed, inexperienced, or unpolished”) with the general sense of “ignorant, wild, or raw,” and quickly took on a wide variety of meanings, from “discourteous” to “crudely drawn” (as in “a rude sketch”). Somewhat surprisingly, “rude” is completely unrelated to “crude,” which is rooted in the Latin “crudus,” meaning “rough or cruel.” But the Latin root of “rude” did spin off two other useful words, “rudiment” (the “raw or most basic state” of something) and “erudite” (literally “brought out of ignorance”).