“Rhubarb” is not just a Vegetable

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Reader Nancy was puzzled by a headline in her local paper:

Colton code stirs ethics rhubarb.” … I have never seen rhubarb used this way. Any thoughts?

NOTE: Colton is a town in California. It has a new ethics code for City Council members, one of whom has refused to sign it.

My mother was a baseball fan so I knew the term rhubarb in the sense of a an argument between a player and the umpire before I ever tasted the vegetable. The figurative use of rhubarb also occurs in contexts outside baseball. Here are three definitions from the OED.

rhubarb: n. A murmurous background noise, an indistinct conversation, esp. the repetition of the word ‘rhubarb’ by actors to represent such a conversation or the noise of a crowd. Usu. reduplicated.

rhubarb: n. slang. Nonsense; worthless stuff.

rhubarb: n. U.S. slang (orig. Baseball). A heated dispute, a row.

Here are some examples from the web:

Wedge, umpire Davidson laugh off Friday’s rhubarb

It’s Rhubarb Time at the Ballpark

Camera and Science Settle the Old Rhubarb (headline for an article about the disputed trajectory of a curve ball.)

[a baseball player] and his 22-year-old brother … were allegedly involved in a rhubarb in the lounge area of U.S. Airways Center …

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary offers several possible etymologies for the term, some more fanciful than others. Sports announcer Garry Schumacher is credited with its first use in a baseball context, but Red Barber (1908-1992) is the one who popularized it, both on the radio and in the title of the book Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat.

In the context of background noise to suggest the presence of a crowd, rhubarb has a rival: walla,

According the the Wikipedia article on the word, “In American radio, film, television, and video games, walla is a sound effect imitating the murmur of a crowd in the background. A group of actors brought together in the post-production stage of film production to create this murmur is known as a walla group.”

Miles Kington: I say rhubarb, you say walla walla walla …

Apart from its baseball and theatrical uses, rhubarb is widely used in the general sense of dispute, disagreement, or altercation.

Central Park Safari for Tasty Weeds Stirs Up Rhubarb (Park officials object to human foragers harvesting the vegetation

[the woman] rushed to retrieve it, and a rhubarb ensued. Police hauled away both individuals from the meeting…

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn runs a feature called the Rhubarb Patch in which controversial social topics are argued by opposing advocates.

A much-repeated explanation that traces rhubarb meaning “background noise” to Shakespearean stage practice seems to be an urban legend.

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