A WORD IN THE HAND: RHUBARB
Actors in a hubbub over pay as scholars argue over crumbles
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Yesterday was Women’s Day, apparently. I couldn’t really tell. The day didn’t start with an announcement in praise of women or come bursting through the door with presents and promotions and promises not to let any bad stuff happen to women ever again. The day behaved exactly as days usually do, which is to say it arrived in the morning and left at night.
Some people call morning the break of day, which is bewildering. If the day breaks just as it’s starting out on its journey, how can it go on? Surely it needs someone to fix it, or at least patch it up so it can limp onwards until night falls on it?
Speaking of which, if the day had any sense at all it would start taking a different route to avoid walking under that ladder from which clumsy night always topples, punching poor old day’s lights out every time. But day has a short memory, it seems, especially in winter.
Sometimes I think I may have spent too much time with Samuel Beckett in my misread youth. Beckett, however, did not spend too much time thinking about rhubarb, and this is where we differ.Rhubarb is a fascinating plant. According to botanical sources it first grew in Siberia, which would account for that song about Rhubarb the red-nosed reindeer, who could never keep his snout out of the vegetable patch.
Rhubarb was originally used for medicinal purposes, which is understandable given its taste. Only when sugar was discovered did it make its way into pies and crumbles.
People who call themselves foodies (if we are to accept this annoying word then we should call wine and whiskey lovers “drinkies”) are divided about rhubarb, but let’s leave them to it. The most fascinating thing about rhubarb, if you ask me, is its use as a word.
No one, not even the indefatigable Phrase Finder, has been able to pinpoint exactly who first decided that the words “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” would best sound like a crowd talking among itself in the background of a film scene.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says that “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” became the mandatory words used by crowd extras in films made during the 1930s. There was a financial reason for this. Actors given actual lines to speak would be (and still are) paid more than those who remain silent. So when producers needed a general hubbub – shoppers in a marketplace, say, or members of parliament during a sitting – they found a loophole by giving the extras words to say that had no discernible meaning, therefore did not qualify as speaking lines and did not warrant payment.
The reason “rhubarb” was chosen was because when a lot of people say it at the same time but not synchronously it has the right sort of aural cut and thrust to sound like actual banter. Or so the theory goes. It does make sense in a way. If everyone said “lettuce, lettuce, lettuce” it would sound more like a nest of snakes hissing, and “banana, banana, banana” would have the audience looking for a flock of sheep.So rhubarb it was. It’s not used all that much any more, but it has left its mark. In The Goon Show, Spike Milligan was famous for distinctly saying “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” in crowd scenes. Upping the ante, Spike’s friend Eric Sykes made a 1969 film in which the dialogue consisted entirely of the word “rhubarb”, said over and over again but with different intonations and emotional depth so that everyone knew exactly what the characters meant. The film, in case you want to watch it, was called Rhubarb.
Rhubarb is not all that big in South Africa, although the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (an example of why state departments really should think about acronyms before choosing their names) has a detailed web page covering the properties and cultivation of rhubarb.
According to Daff, the main threat to young rhubarb plants in these parts is a species of pest called leatherjackets. So if you are thinking about establishing a rhubarb colony, beware of biker gangs on breakfast runs who might be in the mood for a little rhubarb.
Incidentally, in the US rhubarb is slang for a punch-up on the baseball field.Moving away from the screen and sportsfield, rhubarb seems to have found its spiritual home in the English county of Yorkshire, which is home to the Rhubarb Triangle as well as being famous for tiny shouty terriers with ribbons in their hair that are carried around in handbags, and doughy muffins served with roast beef that are inexplicably referred to as pudding.The Yorkshire Rhubarb website tells us that the first documented use of rhubarb (they’re talking about well before it arrived in Yorkshire, probably when the Siberian reindeer were still using it to wipe their noses) was in 2700BC.
I’m not sure how they documented things in 2700BC. Perhaps there is a cave painting somewhere of a person with red liquid dripping down his chin that gave rise to centuries of scholarly debate.“It’s a hunter eating the heart of his prey,” the first archaeologist might have said.
“No,” said the second. “That looks more like red wine. I think it’s evidence of early viniculture.”
“You’re both wrong,” said the third. “That is most definitely rhubarb juice. What we are looking at here, gentlemen, is someone enjoying a slice of rhubarb crumble.”
“Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb,” said the rest of the archaeologists as they argued among themselves.
And there you have it.