Friday, July 4, 2008

Hey Rube!

"Hey, Rube!" is circus slang most commonly used in the United States with origins in the middle 19th century. It is a rallying call, or a cry for help, used by circus people involved in a fight. It can also be used in the sense of describing a fight between circus people and the general public (ie. "the clown got a black eye in a hey, Rube!").

In the early days of circuses in America (c. 1800-1860), it was very common for the employees (and owners) of circuses to get into fights with the locals as they traveled from town to town. Circuses were places where country people could gather, blow off steam and voice political views. Circuses were rowdy, loud and often lewd affairs. Mark Twain's classic description of a circus and other shows in Huckleberry Finn provides illustration. It was a rare show that did not include at least some violence, and this often involved the members of the circus.

When a circus worker was attacked or in trouble, he would yell "Hey, Rube!" and his fellow circus workers would rush to join the melee. Circus pioneer and legendary clown Dan Rice called it "a terrible cry, [meaning] as no other expression in the language does, that a fierce deadly fight is on, that men who are far away from home [traveling circus workers] must band together in a struggle that means life or death to them."

The origin of the expression can be traced to 1848 when a member of Dan Rice's troupe was attacked at a New Orleans dance house. That man yelled to his friend, named "Reuben", who rushed to his aid. Another explanation is that the name "Rubens" is a slang term for farmers (e.g., "Rustic Reubens"), usually shortened to "Rubes". The OED's first entry for "Hey, Rube!" is from 1882 Times (Chicago) 3 Dec. Suppl. 12/4 "A canvasman watching a tent is just like a man watching his home. He'll fight in a minute if the outsider cuts the canvas, and if a crowd comes to quarrel he will yell, ‘Hey Rube!’ That's the circus rallying cry, and look out for war when you hear it."

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