Lexicon Valley

Rhubarb: A Tart, Theatrical Word for BS

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

As part of the launch of Bullshit: A Lexicon, Mark Peters is writing a BS word of the day. 

While researching words for bullshit—for my book Bullshit: A Lexicon—I noticed quite a few patterns. Many reduplicative words—like mumbo jumbo, fiddle-faddle, and flub dub—have a BS-type meaning. Some words for disgusting drinks—like balderdash and balductum—ended up in the BS realm, as hard-to-swallow beverages shifted to hard-to-swallow nonsense. Science fiction has generated several terms, such as felgercarb (from Battlestar Galactica) and targ manure (from Star Trek). But some BS words come out of language’s left field, with a completely unique origin that has no connection to any other word.

Like rhubarb.

This term for BS didn’t earn the name because of the rhubarb’s taste: instead, this was a word used in the theater (since at least the 1920s) by actors and audience members who would simulate a murmur of voices by chanting “rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.” This led to the word sometimes being reduplicated, as in the form rhrubarb-rhubarbed. From there, it became a general term for nonsense and a valid synonym for malarkey, bunk, crapola, and, of course, bullshit.

With an origin like that, I reckon rhubarb could be the foundation of a Twitter account similar to the idiotic but appealing @big_ben_clock, which tweets nothing but “BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG” or “BONG BONG” or “BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG” or … you get the idea. A feed with posts like “Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb” would instantly be one of the most sensible, mature accounts on Twitter.

Rhubarb also means a brawl or verbal argument. The OED’s earliest examples are baseball-related:

1941   N.Y. Times 19 May 20/6   There was what the boys call ‘a bit of a rhubarb’ in the eighth when Cavarretta tried to steal home… In the ensuing run-down, the Cubs charged Phil’s progress was illegally blocked by Lavagetto.

1943   Baseballing Jan. 369/3   A ‘rhubarb’, which has become Brooklynese for a heated verbal run-in, especially between players and umpires.

That meaning isn’t totally unrelated to BS, as terms such as ballyhoo and hullaballoo refer to hubbub-heavy kinds of BS that could involve a verbal throwdown. To rhubarb can also mean to strafe: a plane dropping bombs or firing a machine gun is rhubarbing in a sense far more deadly than anything that happens on the baseball field. The brawl-y meaning informs variations such as rebarbative and rubarby. You can also be a rhubarber.

On another note, I can’t resist pointing out that an astrophysicist recently won a homebrewing contest with a rhubarb-infused beer that probably tastes like balderdash.