You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: rhubarb

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:

RHUBARB

A fellow editor has expressed a pronounced dislike of rhubarb. Tastes vary: My late father, Raymond McIntyre, liked to eat it raw, like celery; I think that it is fine thing in a pie with strawberries. But today it’s not the taste of it but the word we’re examining.

Rhubarb is a very old word in English; the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from 1390. It’s a lift from the Anglo-Norman/Middle French reubarbe, back into the Latin reubarbarum from rha barbarum (“barbarian rhubarb”) and back further to the Greek root rha.

The garden rhubarb with which those strawberry-rhubarb pies are made is one plant of the genus Rheum. There is another which is used in China and Tibet for medicinal purposes. But the word has taken some curious turns beyond botany.

A rhubarb is also a heated dispute, a sense derived from U.S. baseball slang. Baseballing explained it in 1943: “A ‘rhubarb,’ which has become Brooklynese for a heated verbal run-in, especially between players and umpires.”

A rhubarb can also be the sound of murmuring background noise, from actors’ practice of saying “rhubarb” over and over to represent indistinct conversation or crowd noise.

And there is also a slang meaning of rhubarb as “nonsense.”

Examples: From Steve Lamond’s “The Course of True Love,” New England Review (2017): “Some years ago, I had enjoyed a banner crop of rhubarb, which I had stubbornly incorporated into a variety of inedible cobblers and smoothies before packing away the balance in deep freeze.”

From John King on CNN (1971): “The administration is working on health care reform, its budget plan faces a key vote this week, the Vice President's running an efficiency drive for government workers; but in the new Time and Newsweek, the lead stories are on Bill Clinton's $ 200 haircut and the rhubarb over the White House travel office, so pundits wrote about Mr. Clinton’s ‘increasingly troubled presidency’ and a ‘bunker mentality’ at the White House.”

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