Do you like rhubarb? Its taste is a bit sharp, but it can be quite nice alongside something gentler, like custarb. It’s one of those funny words with an Rh at the beginning, when really it seems like a simple R would do fine.
This is thanks to Greek letter Rho, the 17th letter of the Greek alphabet. It looks just like a P: see? P This letter sounds very much like the letter R in English, just a little stronger and more aspirated.
So yes, the word rhubarb comes from Greek (I bet you’ve been wondering about that your whole life), and its name is now somewhat redundant. The original Greek name was rha barbaron, literally meaning foreign rhubarb. Rha you see, was the original Greek name for rhubarb, but what the Ancient Greeks recognised as rhubarb might look different to us, because what we now know as rhubarb was at the time being introduced from China and Tibet, hence: foreign rhubarb.
At this point you’re probably thinking that I can’t surely be that interested in rhubarb. And you’re right, because what got me thinking about the word was how it’s often used repetitively as a nonsense word. This actually originates in a tradition of stage actors, who would repeat the word rhubarb over and over when simulating background conversation. This isn’t just one of those odd theatrical traditions like calling Macbeth “The Scottish Play.” There is in fact, a pretty solid logic to it.
The word has no sharp or instantly recognisable phonemes (the smallest units of sound in a language). It’s a very soft word, with nothing that stands out at you. Carrot wouldn’t work, with its hard T. Nor would cucumber, or courgette, or beetroot. All of those would stand out too much, and you’d recognise the words, or at least the repeated hard consonant or long vowel sounds. Rhubarb works just fine though. When you hear it from a distance, it just sounds like a vague murmur.
Of course you might ask: Why don’t they just have an actual conversation? That sounds simple enough, but have you ever tried having a non-spontaneous conversation? Have you ever said to someone, What should we talk about? It’s always awkward, isn’t it, and you can never think of what to say. Now imagine having to do that in a situation where you don’t have to have an actual conversation. Much easier to just say rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb!
It’s just a pity we can’t say rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb in real-life awkward conversations!