Who's Awkward And Unsophisticated Now?

Jan 8, 2019

Maybe I’m just a rube.

I don’t take issue with The Boston Globe for pointing a finger at the Massachusetts gaming commissioners and telling them where the buck should stop.

But calling them “rubes”?

The house always wins. They know that in Las Vegas. But in Massachusetts, well, not so much.

And right now the Massachusetts Gaming Commission — which faces a $2.6 billion decision on the Wynn Resorts Casino rising in Everett — is playing the game like a bunch of country rubes.

Well, as somebody who lives in little old Greenfield, Massachusetts, that word just makes my eyes go squinty.

Here's why.

Merriam-Webster defines “rube” as “an awkward, unsophisticated person” — and then, thinking it over for a moment with a colon, provides a synonym: “rustic.”

Merriam-Webster's definition of "rube" says it's an awkward, unsophisticated person.
Credit Merriam-Webster / Screenshot

This word hearkens to a long history in America of drawing a divide between the sophisticated city-dwellers and the hillbillies, rednecks, bumpkins, hayseeds, hicks and, yes, rubes who live farther afield.

In 1925, the journalist H.L. Mencken sent back reports from the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, describing the locals as “gaping primates” and their populist hero William Jennings Bryan as “a peasant come home to the barnyard.”

William Jennings Bryan in 1913. Several years later, he argued during the Scopes Trial against the teaching of evolution, and was described by a journalist as "a peasant come home to the barnyard."
Credit Harris and Ewing / U.S. Library of Congress

You might know “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. He was banned from baseball after the 1919 World Series fix. The nickname “Shoeless” was not originally a compliment, but a taunt based on his poor, rural upbringing in South Carolina.

In a scene from the film “Eight Men Out” about that World Series fix, one of the ballplayers signals to the Boston gambler “Sport” Sullivan that he’d be willing to go in on the fix by saying, “You don't play the angles. You're a sap.”

"Shoeless" Joe Jackson in 1913. His nickname was a taunt based on his poor, rural upbringing in South Carolina.
Credit Harris and Ewing / U.S. Library of Congress

In this formulation, gambling is a city vice — and the way the casinos make a buck, so the saying goes, is by separating a rube from his money.

This sounds a lot like the “game” metaphor that the Globe editorial was referencing.

Underlying the use of the term “rube,” then, is a transactional economy, where one party is always working over another, and we call the winners “smart” and the losers “suckers,” “saps” or “rubes.”

It’s not a bad idea for the Gaming Commission to avoid being the one who’s being taken advantage of.

But maybe even more importantly, we should take a look at the way the game is played. You shouldn't be taken advantage of, period — whether you're from the city or the country.

Andrew Varnon teaches English at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts.