Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Throw Some Rheum on the Barbie

 In Medieval Latin, the term for rhubarb was rheubarbarum, and there’s a story behind that. The rheu- segment goes back to the Greek word Rha, an ancient name for the Volga River. Evidently, rhubarb grew on the Volga’s banks, but Russia and Turkey were also famous as conduits for exporting the Asian plant to the rest of the European market.

The -barbarum portion meant foreign; it shares the root of our word barbarian. Unreliable folklore says that that word comes from the Latin barba, beard, because clean-shaven sophisticates considered bearded foreigners to be insensitive and uncultured. The truth seems to be that barbarus was simply an approximation of the unintelligible sounds of foreigners speaking, much as we might use the dismissive blah-blah-blah.

Oddly, the word worked its way into theatrical performances. When the hubbub of a crowd scene was needed--noisy voices but nothing intelligible--the actors would be instructed to repeat the word rhubarb, but not in synch with each other. The result was an unsettling clamor of voices. Try this with your friends at your next barbecue.

Rhubarb also signifies an argument or altercation. Radio announcer Red Barber used it all the time, and he often referred to Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers, as “the rhubarb patch” because of the frequent altercations among umpires, players, and managers.


SIDEBAR: The Rhubarb Compendium

SIDEBAR: Old Fashioned Rhubarb Recipes

SIDEBAR: Rhubarb: the movie


Check out Mike's latest book here: http://arbutuspress.com/
or at Amazon.com


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