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Rhubarb (sense 2) used as a food ingredient

Etymology 1[edit]

From Middle English rubarbe, from Anglo-Norman reubarbe (modern French rhubarbe), from Late Latin reubarbarum, rheubarbarum, rubarbera, rybarba, probably from Koine Greek ῥῆον βάρβαρον (rhêon bárbaron), from ῥῆον (rhêon, rhubarb) + Ancient Greek βάρβαρον (bárbaron), neuter of βάρβαρος (bárbaros, foreign; barbaric) (English barbarian).

There is also a Medieval Latin variant rabarbarum, which appears to be influenced by Ancient Greek ῥᾶ (rhâ, rhubarb), and gave rise to some of the forms in modern languages. The Ancient Greek variant term appears to have been folk-etymologically influenced by Ancient Greek Ῥᾶ (Rhâ, the River Volga), which is in the region from which the plant came to the Mediterranean. The ultimate origin of the Ancient Greek terms is, however, Proto-Iranian *(h)rabā́š (rhubarb, fennel).

The word is cognate with Catalan ruibarbre, Italian rabarbaro, Dutch rabarber, German Rhabarber, Old Occitan reubarbe, Portuguese ruibarbo, Spanish ruibarbo.


rhubarb (countable and uncountable, plural rhubarb or rhubarbs)

  1. Any plant of the genus Rheum, especially Rheum rhabarbarum, having large leaves and long green or reddish acidic leafstalks that are edible, in particular when cooked (although the leaves are mildly poisonous).
    • 1798, Thomas Jones, “The Gold Medal, or Thirty Guineas, at the option of the Candidate, being the Premium offered for cultivating the True Rhubarb, was this Session adjudged to Mr. Thomas Jones, of Fish-street-hill, from whom the following Papers were received. Mr. Jones made choice of the pecuniary Reward.”, in Transactions of the Society Instituted at London, for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce; with the Premiums offered in the Year 1798, volume XVI, London: Printed by W. and C. Spilsbury, Snow-hill. [...], →OCLC, page 213:
      If every the cultivation of Rhubarb in this kingdom becomes ſo extenſive as to ſuperſede the neceſſity of its importation; to the Society for the promotion of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, will the community be indebted for an advantage, the magnitude and importance of which cannot be too highly appreciated. From whatever cauſe, which it is unneceſſary here to inveſtigate, certain it is the conſumption of this valuable drug is increaſed, and continues to do ſo to a very great degree.
    • 1839, John Rogers, “RHUBARB.—Rheum.”, in The Vegetable Cultivator: Containing a Plain and Accurate Description of All the Different Species and Varieties of Culinary Vegetables; with the Most Approved Method of Cultivating Them by Natural and Artificial Means, and the Best Mode of Cooking Them; Alphabetically Arranged. Together with a Description of the Physical Herbs in General Use, &c. Also, Some Recollections of the Life of Philip Miller, F.R.S. Gardener to the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries at Chelsea, London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longmans, Paternoster-Row, →OCLC, pages 265 and 271–272:
      [page 265] In addition to the qualities of the rhubarb above mentioned, it is allowed by all medical men to make one of the most cooling, wholesome, and delicious tarts sent to table; many persons prefer it indeed either to green gooseberries or apples. In the early part of the season the stalks of rhubarb are cut up and mixed with these fruits; with the former before they have obtained their flavour, and with the latter after losing it by long keeping. [] [pages 271–272] Hot-beds, frames, or pits, where a gentle heat can be kept up, will do extremely well for forcing rhubarb, provided the glasses are kept darkened. [] The advantages of blanching the stalk of rhubarb are twofold; namely, the desirable qualities of improved appearance and flavour, and a saving in the quantity of sugar necessary to render them agreeable to the palate, as the leaf-stalks when blanched are infinitely less harsh than when growing under the influence of light, in open situations.
    • 1999, J. Heritage, E[mlyn] G[lyn] V[aughn] Evans, R. A. Killington, “Food Microbiology”, in Microbiology in Action (Studies in Biology), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, published 2000, →ISBN, section 5.6.3 (Food Poisoning Associated with the Consumption of Plant Material), page 99:
      [T]he stems of the culinary rhubarb plant (Rheum palmatum) are used in stewing, jams and in tarts and pies. Rhubarb roots were a traditional purgative and the leaves of the rhubarb plant are rich in oxalic acid. This causes irritation of the mouth and the oesophagus. Ingestion of rhubarb leaves induces vomiting and abdominal pains.
    • 2014, Ruth Rogers Clausen, Thomas Christopher, “Rheum”, in Essential Perennials: The Complete Reference to 2700 Perennials for the Home Garden, Portland, Or., London: Timber Press, →ISBN, page 328, column 1:
      Most Americans are familiar with the culinary rhubarb that furnishes a filling for pies; fewer are aware that rhubarbs also include several bold and beautiful garden perennials. [] For a tropical foliage effect on a grand scale, substitute rhubarbs as cold-hardy alternatives to Gunnera; similarly, rhubarbs thrive alongside ponds and streams.
  2. (often attributive) The leafstalks of common rhubarb or garden rhubarb (usually known as Rheum × hybridum), which are long, fleshy, often pale red, and with a tart taste, used as a food ingredient; they are frequently stewed with sugar and made into jam or used in crumbles, pies, etc.
  3. The dried rhizome and roots of Rheum palmatum (Chinese rhubarb) or Rheum officinale (Tibetan rhubarb), from China, used as a laxative and purgative.
    • 1661, Robert Lovell, “Anthropologia, &c. Of Man. &c.”, in ΠΑΝΖΩΟΡΥΚΤΟΛΟΓΙΑ [PANZŌORYKTOLOGIA]. Sive Panzoologicomineralogia. Or A Compleat History of Animals and Minerals, Containing the Summe of All Authors, both Ancient and Modern, Galenicall and Chymicall, [...], Oxford, Oxfordshire: [] Hen[ry] Hall, for Jos[eph] Godwin, →OCLC, page 388:
      The running of the reines or gonorrhœa, which is an exceſſive and involuntary profuſion of ſperm, cauſed, by its proper vice, and that of the ſpermatick parts; it's cured, [] if the ſperm be hot & ſharp, by phlebotomy, rhubarb, myrobalans, ſuccory, the foure greater cold ſeeds, anointing the ſpine and loines, with refrigerating unguents, the cerot of ſaunders, and comitiſſæ; []
    • 1666, Nich[olas] Culpeper, “The Quince-Tree”, in The English Physitian Enlarged: With Three Hundred, Sixty, and Nine Medicine, Made of English Herbs that were Not in Any Impression untill This. Being an Astrolo-physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation; Containing a Compleat Method or Physick, whereb a Man may Preserve His Body in Health; or Cure Himself, being Sick, for Three Pence Charge, with Such Things Only as Grow in England, They being Most Fit for English Bodies. [...], London: Printed by John Streater, →OCLC, page 200:
      [] If you would have them Purging, put Honey to them inſtead of Sugar; and if more Laxative, for Choler, Rhubarb; for Flegm, Turbith, for watry Humours, Scammony: but if more forcibly to bind, uſe the unripe Quinces with Roſes, and Acacia, or Hypociſtis, and ſome torrefied Rhubarb.
    • 1788, Abbé Reynal [Guillaume Thomas François Raynal], “Book V. Trade of Denmark, Ostend, Sweden, Prussia, Spain, and Russia, to the East Indies. Some Important Inquiries Concerning the Connections of Europe with India.”, in J[ohn] O[badiah] Justamond, transl., A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies. [...] In Eight Volumes, volume III, London: Printed for A[ndrew] Strahan; and T[homas] Cadell, in the Strand, →OCLC, page 176:
      The rhubarb is a root which has the property of purging gently, of ſtregthening the ſtomach, of facilitating digeſtion, and of deſtroying worms in children. It is a tuberoſe root, rather ſpongy, brown on the outſide, yellow internally, and ſtreaked with reddiſh veins. Its taſte is bitter and aſtringent, its ſmell acrid and aromatic.
  4. (Britain, military, aviation, historical) A Royal Air Force World War II code name for operations by aircraft (fighters and fighter-bombers) involving low-level flight to seek opportunistic targets.
    • 2009, Dilip Sarkar, “Foreword”, in Brian Lane, edited by Dilip Sarkar, Spitfire!: The Experiences of a Battle of Britain Fighter Pilot, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, →ISBN, page 11:
      On 13 December 1942, Squadron Leader [Brian] Lane made his first flight from Ludham, a local familiarisation flight. That afternoon, he led a section of Spitfires low over the North Sea on a ‘Rhubarb’, a low-level sweep over the Dutch coast, looking for targets of opportunity.
  5. (Saskatchewan) A ditch alongside a road or highway.
    Driving home yesterday, I almost hit the rhubarb.
  • (common rhubarb): tusky (dialectal, Yorkshire)
Derived terms[edit]
Related terms[edit]


rhubarb (not comparable)

  1. Of the colour of rhubarb: either brownish-yellow (the colour of rhubarb rhizomes and roots used for medicinal purposes), or pale red (often the colour of the leafstalks of common rhubarb).
    • 2001, Adam Rapp, Nocturne: A Play, New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, →ISBN, page 26:
      I just can't see her face. Sometimes I actually picture two enormous X's stamped over her eyes. Something from the Sunday comics. I change her hair color on a daily basis. She was a rhubarb blonde. No, she wasn't, she was a redhead and she had tortellini-like curls. She had straight brown hair. She was bald. Her skull gleamed with a kind of lunar sorrow.


rhubarb (third-person singular simple present rhubarbs, present participle rhubarbing, simple past and past participle rhubarbed)

  1. (Britain, military, aviation) Of fighter aircraft: to fire at a target opportunistically.

Etymology 2[edit]

Attributed to the circa 1852 practice by the theatre company of English actor Charles Kean (1811–1868) at the Princess’s Theatre, London, of actors saying the word rhubarb repetitively to mimic the sound of indistinct conversation, the word having been chosen because it does not have harsh-sounding consonants or clear vowels.

The baseball senses are said to have been coined by the American sports writer Garry Schumacher and popularized by the American baseball commentator Red Barber (1908–1992).[1] Barber also claimed to have started using the word in the 1940s, based on the practice in “early radio dramas” (presumably in the US, circa 1930) of actors repetitively voicing rhubarb. However, unlike the UK usage, he felt the practice applied to muttering by an angry mob, and so applied the word to arguments on the baseball field where he could not distinguish the words.


rhubarb (countable and uncountable, plural rhubarbs)

  1. (originally theater, uncountable) General background noise caused by several simultaneous indecipherable conversations, which is created in films, stage plays, etc., by actors repeating the word rhubarb; hence, such noise in other settings.
    • 2001, Ronnie Corbett, High Hopes: My Autobiography, London: Ebury Press, published 2016, →ISBN, page 253:
      It [the film The Picnic] wasn't actually a silent film; there were sound effects, but the dialogue was a rhubarb-ish series of grunts and mutters.
  2. (UK, uncountable, by extension) Nonsense; false utterance.
    • 1992, Moliere, translated by Nick Dear, Le Bourgeous Gentilhomme: A New Version by Nick Dear, U.K: Bloomsbury Publishing, page 70:
      MADAME JOURDAIN: No, it’s all complete rhubarb. MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Dara dara bastonnara! He begins to dance and chant. MADAME JOURDAIN: Don’t think that’s going to make things any clearer.
    • 2005, Jonathan Aitken, “Difficult days at Stanford Hill”, in Porridge and Passion, U.K: Continuum International Publishing Group, page 97:
      On my second day in the market garden our group spent all day moving empty rhubarb boxes to one side of a courtyard and all afternoon moving them back again. ‘Makes a change from talking rhubarb in the House of Commons I expect,’ said one of my fellow labourers.
    • 2009, Michael-ji-ji Mouseman the III, “We the damned”, in Ratology: Way of the Un-damned, Australia: Ladder to the Moon Publications (T/a Vital Aqua), page 68:
      People’s minds really serve up a lobar of rhubarb with the inner dialogue they tell themselves.
    • 2022 January 28, Jon Stone, “‘Total rhubarb’: Boris Johnson again denies he ordered Afghan animal airlift as fresh emails emerge”, in Independent[1]:
      Boris Johnson has dismissed new evidence that he ordered the controversial evacuation of dogs and cats from Afghanistan for Pen Farthing’s Nowzad charity as “total rhubarb”…The PM doubled down on Thursday when asked if he had helped to get animals out, telling reporters: “No, that is…this whole thing is total rhubarb”.
  3. (US, originally baseball, countable) An excited, angry exchange of words, especially at a sporting event.
    • 1953, Clair Bee, “The Fireman Arrives”, in Fence Busters (Chip Hilton Sports Series; 11), New York, N.Y.: Grosset & Dunlap, →OCLC; republished as Clair Bee, Randall K. Farley, Cynthia Bee Farley, Fence Busters, Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1999, →ISBN:
      Out in the bullpen, Chip Hilton and Soapy Smith had stopped throwing to watch the argument—what ballplayers call a "rhubarb."
  4. (US, originally baseball, by extension, countable) A brawl.
    • 1973, Matthew Braun, El Paso, New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Paperbacks, published July 1999, →ISBN, page 142:
      But damned if it don't seem like killin' him would stir up an even bigger political rhubarb. I mean, it ain't like nobody'd have to be told who did it.
Alternative forms[edit]


rhubarb (third-person singular simple present rhubarbs, present participle rhubarbing, simple past and past participle rhubarbed)

  1. (intransitive, originally theater) Of an actor in a film, stage play, etc.: to repeat the word rhubarb to create the sound of indistinct conversation; hence, to converse indistinctly, to mumble.
    • 1986, John le Carré [pseudonym; David John Moore Cornwell], chapter 11, in A Perfect Spy, London: Hodder & Stoughton, →ISBN; 1st Pocket Books trade paperback edition, New York, N.Y.: Pocket Books, January 2003, →ISBN, page 349:
      At Rick's side our local Liberal Party Chairman is smacking his yeoman's paws together and rhubarbing ecstatically in Rick's ear.
    • 1991, Gordon Burn, chapter 5, in Alma Cogan, London: Vintage Books, →ISBN; republished London: Faber and Faber, 2004, →ISBN:
      I suspect it's these pictures that —— and his cronies have in mind when they rhubarb on about iconicity and retro imagery and the 'solid, uncomplicated, talismanic Englishness' (that is, counterfeit Americanness) of the immediate post-war years that I'm supposed to represent.
    • 2008, John Mole, “Mixed Feelings about the Tutu”, in I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and Travails in the New Russia, London, Boston, Mass.: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, →ISBN, page 96:
      They gathered under the giant chandelier, elegant little women with scraped-back hair, feet in the turned-out position, arms in the first or, for those with handbags, in the third, and one or two sur le cou-de-pied, for all the world as if they were rhubarbing in a crowd scene twenty-five years before.
    • 2013, Michael O'Donnell, “Medical Committeespiel”, in The Barefaced Doctor: A Mischievous Medical Companion, Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire: Matador, →ISBN, page 232:
      Experienced spielers know that, if they keep rhubarbing away in an unrelenting monotone, their audience will soon become hypnotised by the sound of the words and lose grasp of their meaning.
    • 2014, Jon Brittain, Matt Tedford, Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, London, New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, →ISBN, page 17:
      They pick up massive folders of paper and leave, rhubarbing as they go.
    • 2015 September, Gordon Edgar, “Mac and Cheese, Class War, and the Many Meanings of Cheddar”, in Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese, White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing, →ISBN, page 1:
      Doors opened, food prep clattered, and the crowd rhubarbed as everyone hurried in to get their money's worth. The expected smells competed with each other to dominate the room: cheese, pasta, meat … dairy, doughy, dead. And presumably delicious.
  2. (transitive) To articulate indistinctly or mumble (words or phrases); to say inconsequential or vague things because one does not know what to say, or to stall for time.
    • 2015, Julie Checkoway, “A Season of Flame”, in The Three-year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory, New York, N.Y.: Grand Central Publishing, →ISBN:
      Ordinarily this group of egos rhubarbed about matters as trivial as whose turn it was to order the next round, but tonight they were united in their project, and while men were killing one another all over the world, a strange peace had broken out among America's swim coaches.


  1. ^ rhubarb, n. and adj.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, June 2010.

Further reading[edit]