rhubarb, minuscule ...

rhubarb 1.jpg

There are three words singled out by the Editor of the BuzzFeed Style Guide as representing different stages of the spelling battlefront. 

 The increased frequency of the spelling miniscule, aligning this word with the common prefix mini- rather than the Latin minus meaning ‘less, small’, comes as no surprise. Here the battle has been lost. But rubarb?

 According to David Crystal, the internet has started to show its power to influence spelling, and rubarb is one such example of a spelling that is increasing in frequency online.  He measured its progress from 2006 to 2011 and predicted that in the very near future we would all be shifting to the rubarb spelling. 

 How rhubarb came to have an h in the first place is not relevant to its mooted disappearance now, except in the sense that an etymological sensitivity is not a strong concern of language gatekeepers today. This is particularly true in America where there is an inclination to look at the spelling of a word as it relates to the pronunciation, and to give little heed to the history of the word.

 Rhubarb was borrowed into Anglo-Norman English from the French, the French word deriving from the Latin and ultimately from the Greek, so let’s start there. The ancient Greeks had a plant which they called rha and which they used medicinally in dried form.  Then they were introduced to another plant of the same species which they thought came from Syria, and which they described as a ‘foreign rha’. The Greek name is transliterated as rheon barbaron.

 The English spelling rh is meant to represent the Greek r which had an aspiration, a breathing sound before the consonant. The English decided in the late 1500s to improve the spelling they had (reubarb or rubarb) by adding the h. It was a bit of etymological gimmickry that survives in rhyme and rhetoric as well.

 Of course that means nothing to English writers today who dutifully learn that rhubarb has an h and get on with life. But out there in cyberspace the rumour is that the rot is setting in.

 A quick search shows that the only acceptable spelling in Australian English is with the h. The rubarb spelling is not even worth mentioning as a variant. We are still holding the line, at least in published texts. And indeed, online but further afield, the spelling without the h seems to be mostly in trademarks, jokes, etc. This may be one instance where Crystal gave too much weight to what he found online and was too quick to predict the future.

As for restaurateur, this word gave us grief in the first edition of the Macquarie Dictionary. We had decided, on the basis of the limited usage research available to us at the time, that restauranteur had currency and  gave that as our main entry with restaurateur as a variant.

 There was an enormous backlash from the gatekeepers which seemed to have the effect of persuading the language community to pull up its collective socks. There is, however, a continuing minority use of restauranteur which Macquarie Dictionary regards as warranting a usage note but not admission as a variant spelling.