Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Rhubarb, rubarb, roobarb...

In his excellent recent book Spell It Out, David Crystal reports that, searching the internet over the past six years, he has noted an increase in the spelling rubarb over the traditional spelling rhubarb.  In 2006 there were just a few hundred occurrences of this spelling, by 2011 there were more than a million instances. Crystal predicts that over the next five years rubarb will become the more common spelling of the word online, concluding that the ‘offline world’ will follow suit over the next decade. 

The spelling rubarb isn’t actually a new development, but rather a return to the word’s origins, since its earliest spelling in Middle English is reubarb.  The word was borrowed from the French reubarbe, only adopting the form rhubarb in the sixteenth century by comparison with the original form of the word in Greek: rheon barbaron.  The Greek term literally means ‘foreign rhubarb’; the word barbaron being the root of our word barbarous. 

The problem with using the Internet as a linguistic corpus is that it’s changing all the time, so that you don’t really know what you’re searching.  Many of these rubarbs are not genuine uses of the word but Trade names, personal names and pet names.  Searching the digital archive of The Times newspaper, which covers the period from 1785-2006, suggests that the rubarb spelling was much less common in print during that period – just 23 instances, against 4845 of rhubarb.  The Oxford English corpus, a collection of 2 billion words of contemporary spoken and written English, has just 7 instances; the only examples found on The Guardian website are from an article by David Crystal!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.