Q From David Procter: I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy recently. In George M Cohan’s song Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, there is a line, “Oh, what a fine bunch of reubens”. I wondered what it referred to — I doubted that it meant the sandwich. A friend said that it refers to members of the Jewish faith, but as I pointed out to her, that doesn’t fit the meaning. Can you help?
A It’s a very old-fashioned extension of the male personal name. It’s from the Hebrew name Reuven in the Old Testament, the firstborn of Jacob’s 12 sons, which is presumably why your friend supposed a Jewish connection. As you say, there isn’t a link in its American sense, in which it refers in a derogatory way to an unsophisticated countryman, a yokel or hick.
At one time it was common to adopt personal names from the Bible, in rural communities in particular (in 1880, one boy in 200 was named Reuben), and the suggestion is that Reuben somehow became adopted by metropolitans as a suitable alias for a country bumpkin. We may guess that the alliteration of rural or rustic with Reuben helped it along.
When it began is hard to tell. The first examples I can turn up are from the early 1880s. But these are abbreviations of a term of the 1870s in Indiana, Ragged Reuben, an insulting term for a rural member of the Democratic Party, considered by urban members to be an ignorant backwoodsman. The term was used in counterpoint to swallow-tail, his urban equivalent, which I suspect referred to the bifurcated tailcoats of professional men in the cities. We might presume from this that Reuben was already in use as a slang term for a hick. Or perhaps not, and it was this alliteration, not the others I’ve mentioned, that brought reuben into being.
This is the first example of Reuben I’ve so far found, also from Indiana, showing the link with politics:
Darke county and Jackson township, where Democrats grow spontaneously, were called upon to “come over into Macedonia and help,” and the “Reubens” of those localities were urged to come early, or they might not be able to get into town at all, the crowd was expected to be so great.
Indianapolis Journal, 28 Jun. 1880.
By the 1890s, reuben (by then often without its initial capital letter) had become abbreviated to rube to match the common short form of the personal name, as in the famous Rube Goldberg. This was popular for some decades but is now much less common. The personal name has also declined in popularity, to 1 in 800 today, though it has shown a slight revival in recent years.
It has survived better in the exclamation hey rube!, originally a nineteenth-century cry by circus people to bring help if a fight started. This is an early explanation:
“Hey! Rube!” [is the] circus-man’s shout, which has been heard from Maine to Oregon and from Hudson’s Bay to Brazil. When the countrymen get too fresh and too full of fight, they generally get it. The first performer attacked sends forth the thrilling war cry, and every man and boy connected with the show arm themselves with some weapon, and sally to the aid of their brother.
Cincinnati Enquirer, 7 Sep. 1879.
The association with fights led hey rube to become a noun meaning a scrap. We don’t know where the term comes from. There’s a tale that it began as an actual cry of help from a circus worker to a friend called Reuben. But that’s impossible to substantiate.
As is the source of Reuben in Reuben sandwich, American slang for a hot sandwich of rye bread containing cheese, corned beef and sauerkraut. The term started to appear in the middle 1920s. Various stories have been told about its origin. A plausible one was given in a syndicated newspaper report in 1927, which attributed it to Arnold Reuben’s delicatessen in New York City and remarked:
Reuben’s still flourishes. A Reuben sandwich may cost a dollar and a half, but it’s worth it. The relics of a former generation and that portion of the new element which still eats has made Reuben rich and famous. Visit Reuben’s after midnight. Rich men, lovely women, movie actresses in rubies, gamblers, reporters — .
Kansas City Star, 9 Jun. 1927.
By the way, the next line in Forty-five Minutes from Broadway to the one you quoted is “Oh, what a jay atmosphere”. Jay is an ancient term for a stupid or silly person or a simpleton. This was applied in the US to stupid, gullible, ignorant, or provincial people and led to jaywalker for country cousins who didn’t understand the rules of the road in the big city.