It’s rhubarb and berry season, and the Lexplorers recently shared a freshly-baked rhubarb and strawberry pie with a visiting non-native English speaker. As we enjoyed the pie, we tried to explain to our puzzled visitor that rhubarb is one of those rare English words that begins with rh-. We were unfortunately unable to provide any wisdom as to how to recognize and correctly spell English rh- words (beyond “Like so many things in English, you just need to memorize them, sorry!”). But in the process we had fun coming up with a list of the English rh- words that we could think of, and a few minutes with the dictionary then reminded us of all the ones we had forgotten.
Almost all English words beginning with rh- have roots in Ancient Greek and the aspirated liquid consonant rho (Ρ / ρ). Some are relatively common. Rhinoceros comes from the Greek roots ῥίς (rhís = “nose”) and κέρας (kéras = “horn”). Rhythm comes from ῥυθμός (rhuthmós = “flow or movement”). And rhapsody comes from ῥαψῳδία (rhapsōidía = “to weave songs”).
Other English rh- words are much less common and usually restricted to Greek-heavy domains like medicine and botany and math. Rhinitis (also from ῥίς / rhís) is an irritation of the nose, and rheumatism (from ῥεῦμα / rheûma = “stream, flow”) is a painful, chronic joint inflammation. Rhizome (from ῥίζα / rhíza = “root”) is a type of plant root, and rhododendron (from ῥόδον / rhódon = “rose” and δένδρον / déndron = “tree”) is a flowering shrub. Our favorite geometric shape, the rhombus comes from (ῥόμβος / rhómbos = “spinning top”).
Rhubarb itself (the word and the plant) has a much more interesting origin. The first part of rhubarb probably comes from Rha, which was the former Scythian name of the River Volga, on whose banks the rhubarb plant was grown. The second syllable of rhubarb likely comes from the Latin barbarum (“barbarian”). In America, the word rhubarb is also used for an angry argument or brawl during a baseball game, and that sense likely originates with American baseball commentator Red Barber (whose name sounds suspiciously like rhubarb).
We had a fun time over rhubarb pie pondering English rh- words, which led us to consider the English word ruminate. Although not an rh- word, ruminate has evolved in a fun way. It originally came from the Latin rūmināre (“to chew the cud”) and was applied to ruminants, animals like cows and sheep who chew the cud. However, the much more common modern use of ruminate is a different kind of chewing, to chew over something in one’s mind (“to ponder” or “to meditate at length”).
And finally, one more rh- story. One of the Lexplorers, who wishes to remain nameless for obvious reasons, admits to once (as a young child) confusing an English rh- word with something quite unrelated:
But why are people always talking about how delicious rhesus pieces are? I can’t imagine they taste good at all!