Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Of Rubes and Reubens

Carol Hood wrote just the other day with a cry for lexical help:

Duhhhh“I have recently been quietly informed that I used a racial slur in casual conversation. Needless to say I was appalled! PLEASE explain to me how the word rube when used to denote a rustic or unsophisticated person is a slur! We were with some Jewish friends and my helpful friend said I had used an ethnic slur…something about the origin of this word and the usually Jewish name, Reuben. She then alluded to the gradeschool song ‘Reuben, Reuben, I’ve been thinking’ as a racially charged song in the same vein as rube. HELP!!”

There is no doubt that rube comes from Reuben for the word Reuben itself was used at the beginning of the 19th century to refer to yokels. Reuben is a Jewish name. However, Jews were never farmers in American and this term clearly originated as a derogatory reference to sod-busters (there’s a sure slur for you) in the US and Canada. No semantic connection.

It did not come from the circus term rube used in the circus May-day cry, “Hey, Rube!” referring to local yokels,  either. Reuben was used in this sense at least 80 years before the circus term appeared. The circus seems to have gotten its term from the same source.

I thought it might have originally been applied to the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers since Reuben is also sort of a German name However, it is not a common name among the PA Germans.

If all words implying that a person is ignorant, true or false, are slurs, this word is a slur. But if no one—including Jewish etymologists—can show that this word is related to a Hebrew name for sure, and some people deserving of the epithet do in fact exist, how can it be taken as an anti-Semitic slur?

One Response to “Of Rubes and Reubens”

  1. mahto Says:

    Dear Carol:
    I think the word “rube” is not a racial slur and has nothing to do with the name “Ruben”. It looks more like it’s derived from the German language, where a “beet” or “root”, yes, just like the beetroot, is called “Rübe” (Ruebe, in case your OS can’t display an “Umlaut”). Particularly the forage beet (in German “Futterrübe”) is considered unfit for human consumption, and thus ‘inferior’. Referring to people, it is sometimes used jokingly, so I can assure you that at least in the German language it is not much of a slur, and particularly not a racial slur.

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