1530s, "a boisterous, brutal fellow, one ready to commit any crime," from French rufian "a pimp" (15c.), from Italian ruffiano "a pander, pimp," of uncertain origin, perhaps from a Germanic source related to rough (adj.), but Dutch roffiaan, German Ruffian are said to be from French. Whatever its ultimate source, the English meaning of the word might have been influenced by the similarity of the sound to rough. Related: Ruffianly.
The Romanic words (such as Medieval Latin ruffianus, Provençal rufian, Catalan rufia, Spanish rufian) preserve the sense of "protector or owner of whores," a sense occasionally met in English in 17c. For sense evolution in English, compare bully (n.). Related: Ruffianage; ruffianhood; ruffianism.
updated on October 18, 2021