Daily Archives: June 8, 2010


There’s fennel for you, and columbines:
there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me:
we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays:
O you must wear your rue with a difference…

So said Ophelia, expressing a rueful madness not long before she drowned herself, an act that Hamlet in turn rued.

Ah, indeed, one does rue pain, and rue may cause pain, too: I don’t mean the rue that is the rarely used noun form of the verb, but the rue that refers to the evergreen shrub of which Ophelia spoke. It may have been used for medicinal purposes, but consumption of rue oil can cause stomach cramping, convulsions, even death, and its application to the skin can cause blistering in the sun.

I also refer to the rue and pain one may find in France and western Switzerland. I was walking down the street in Montreux once when a couple of American tourists asked me where they could find “grand rue,” said just as if they meant a great sorrow, a pronunciation that caused me some pain. I asked them, for clarity, “Grande Rue?” saying it as French, and they repeated again – as though correcting me – in their nasal American way, “grand rue.” I indicated the direction and walked on down my own rue to procure some of the more agreeable pain – the sort made in a boulangerie (or at the very least to find a nice gravy made with a roux of flour and butter). Indeed, I wanted to make like a grand ’roo and hop away from the scene of mispronunciation as fast as I could. Or call in Lash LaRue, a mid-century actor in westerns known for his skill with the bullwhip. I would even have settled for Rue McClanahan, though she is not the most violent of femmes.

One way or the other, I would have liked to see them covered with rue – not necessarily for a blister in the sun; simple regret would have been sufficient. For one may be covered with rue, as Jim Taylor (who requested this tasting) recently said to an acquaintance. If one is thus well rued, one may well have rued it, but it will at least not be rude, will it? But may one become inured to being in rue?

Well, not in the Rue Morgue, I’m sure – a common collocate of rue, but obviously of the French rue. Let us take a different route: one to the past. This word rue meaning “regret, feel remorse, pity” is a grand old Germanic word, manifest in Old English as hréow (noun) and hréowan (verb). It was at first an impersonal verb: in modern English, that would be of the sort it rues me (seem is still one such – it seems to me – and think‘s impersonal origin survives in methinks). But what could be more personal, really, than rue? So now we say not it rues me but rather I rue it. But, then, what do I rue? Likely, I rue the day or rue the hour. (Rue day? Rude, eh?) One may even simply rue, intransitively.

To get back on route, the other rue, for the plant, comes from Latin ruta, from Greek ruté. But in English the plant has long been associated with the sense of the Germanic rue. In Lithuania, on the other hand, where it is the national herb, it is associated with young girls and maidenhood. Ah, it seems almost to rue maidenhood itself, for one half-kisses empty air when saying it. And so may a young lady go regretfully to an early, if herbal, end: if she miss a kiss, then “there’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.”