The Phrontistery




B is for Barbarity

Linguistic Disquisitions
Hover over italicized words for definitions

In the last instalment of these disquisitions, I discussed the unusual linguistic feature of reduplication with respect to various words of Hawaiian origin. In light of the World Trade Center attacks, it seems only proper to bring to mind one of the most over-used of all reduplications, one with considerable currency over the past two months. That word, of course, is barbarian.

One need not look far afield these days to see numerous examples of this term (and the related barbarous, barbaric, and barbarism) being used to refer to those who participated in or supported the activities of September 11. To wit:

"There is a desire by the American people to not seek only revenge, but to win a war against barbaric behavior" – George W. Bush

"As for those that carried out these attacks, there are no adequate words of condemnation. Their barbarism will stand as their shame for all eternity." – Tony Blair

"The series of barbarian terrorist acts, targeted against innocent people, cause our indignation and outrage." – Vladimir Putin

And, of course, the name-calling runs both ways:

"The entire West, with the exception of a few countries, supports this unfair, barbaric campaign, although there is no evidence of the involvement of the people of Afghanistan in what happened in America." – Osama bin Laden

One may disagree with this characterisation; in fact, it should be eminently clear to anyone who considers the topic for a moment that these attacks could not have been accomplished save by intelligent and cunning men, entirely comfortable with the high technology of the 21st century, and whatever we may think of their morality, their methods were not those of uncivilised brutes. Regardless of what we may feel about the appellation, it is clear that world leaders know exactly what they are doing in using it. Firstly, the characterisation of terrorists as barbarians cements in our minds that the terrorists are uncivilised, savage, and remorseless – in short, "not-us". Their dehumanisation is absolutely necessary if leaders and the media wish to make it politically palatable to "smoke them out of their caves". Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, to classify one's enemies as barbarians leaves no doubt in the minds of listeners that the West (if I were a true cynic, I might say "Caucasians of the West") is technologically superior to those who launched the attacks. To call one's opponents barbarians is, in effect, to claim that they are backward and undeveloped – perhaps enough of a threat to win a battle, but there can be no doubt as to who will win the war.

"Barbarian" first entered the English language in the late fourteenth century (as barbaryn), followed shortly thereafter by the adjective "barbarous" and a host of related words. It is notable that the first instance of "barbarian" rather than "barbaryn" in written English, from 1549, is from The Complaynt of Scotland , a tract designed to incite the Scots against English rule. In insisting that the Scots were just as civilised and capable of self-rule as the English, the text succinctly notes: "Euere nation reputis vthers nations to be barbariens, quhen there tua natours and complexions ar contrar til vtheris", or, in modern English, "Every nation reputes other nations to be barbarians, when their two natures and complexions are contrary to each other". Nearly half a millennium later, we are in dire need of looking once again, not only at the etymology of the term, but also the changes in its meaning from antiquity to the present.

"Barbarian" and its relatives are derived from the Latin barbarus "strange, foreign, ignorant", which in turn comes from the Greek barbaros, which is approximately semantically equivalent. Now, etymologists rarely agree on anything, but one thing they do seem to agree on is that when barbaros was first used in Greek, it was as an adjective meaning "stammering" or "unable to speak intelligibly". To wit, Sanskrit, the earliest Indo-European language of India, has a cognate term in barbaras which means "stammering". It is not hard to see how such a word might develop – the repetition of the syllable "bar" is a classic example of onomatopoeia, representing the sound of a stammering person. To this was soon added the connotation that anyone unable to speak Greek was unintelligible, and thus, the sound of their foreign tongue was little more than babbling nonsense. The Greeks, like most people of that or this age, were characterised by a mild xenophobia in which that which is foreign was not to be trusted and certainly not to admired. By the time the Romans got hold of barbaros, the word had acquired a darker meaning, including, but not limited to, bloodthirstiness and the practice of human sacrifice. The primary connotations of the word became those of savagery and wildness rather than unintelligibility or ignorance, and it is in these more invidious senses that the word has come to us in English.

However, despite this agreement, linguistic convergence of "barbarian" with other English words has led many a folk etymologist astray in attributing some historical connection between barbarians and their hair and/or their practices of food preparation, where none exists. Firstly, there is the question of the Latin barbus "beard". Surely one of the things that any good Roman would notice is that many of the peoples to the north of him grew abundant facial hair, whereas the Romans associated facial depilation with civility. While the Romans called the fellow who would do so tonsor, by the Middle Ages the Latin word was barbator, and thus we today call those trained in removing hair (whether on the face or atop the head) barbers. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to wonder whether the "barbarians" were so named because of their barbi. Alas for folk etymology, there's nothing to it; in classical Greek, the word for beard is pogon (from whence we get the delightful word pogonotomy), and so it is simply impossible that the Greeks associated the two terms.

Secondly, it is sometimes asserted – especially in this age of animal rights – that there is some connection between "barbarian" and "barbecue". No doubt, the roasting of an animal over an open fire seems barbaric to some, and the linguistic similarity is striking enough to suggest that the barbecue must take its name from the barbarians who engaged in the practice. Similarly, it has been suggested that the word derives from the French phrase "barbe à queue", or "beard to tail", referring to the fact that an entire animal would be placed on a spit. Both of these are clear cases of false etymology. Rather, barbecue is a corruption of barbacoa, a word that entered English in the 17th century via Spanish, but whose ultimate origins lie in the Taino language spoken in the Caribbean, mainly in Puerto Rico and Bahamas. Unfortunately, the Taino language has suffered enormously (as have the Taino themselves) over the past 500 years of colonial rule. Today, most Taino speak Spanish only, or else a mix of Spanish and Taino, and the language as spoken in 1500 is essentially extinct. However, Taino has the dubious honour of having contributed very many important words to English (mainly via Spanish or Portuguese) because of the unfortunate fact that the Taino were one of the first cultures contacted by Europeans. Accordingly, many Taino words have been borrowed (more or less corrupted) into English. Some of these borrowings are very common, such as cannibal (caniba), hammock (hamaca), hurricane (hurakan), maize (mahiz), potato (batata), savanna (zabana) and tobacco (tabaco), and, of course, barbecue (barbacoa). I can think of no other language that is essentially extinct today and yet has contributed so many words to the English language. It is a tragedy that is only exacerbated by the association of the barbecue with barbarians.

Let us not forget, as we bandy about bellicose words against the 'barbarians', that the greatest barbarian assault of any age was not that of Afghans, or Mongols, or Arabs or Turks. Rather, it was the migration of large numbers of Germanic tribes at the end of the Roman empire that brought the Latin-speaking world to refer to the newcomers as barbarians. These folks, Goths and Vandals, Franks and Lombards, are the ancestral populations of most of Europe, including every good Anglo-Saxon who now uses the term to refer to darker-skinned populations of the Middle East. Let us not forget, either, that despite the enormous fear of the barbarian felt by Rome in its latter years, that within some few centuries of coming into contact with the Roman Empire, most of the barbarians of Europe were Christian and had adopted many of the Romans' ways. Fear of unknown quantities (especially those who, by virtue of linguistic differences, you do not comprehend) easily leads to hostility and demonization.

Furthermore, despite its original implication of foreignness and incivility, some of America's most widely admired women bear a "barbarous" name, thanks to a legendary Saint Barbara who supposedly lived in the 3rd century, lending her name to a host of later non-barbarous Barbaras. We need only look to former American First Lady and present First Mommy Barbara Bush. I'm certain that numerous interviewees of renowned journalist Barbara Walters have come away thinking her less than civil, though perhaps not truly barbarous. Even Barbie, the most archetypal of American girls, gets her name from a crude foreshortening of the same name.

Now, lest some pedant think that I am advocating the abolishment of 'barbarian' due to its ethnocentric origins, rest assured that I mean no such thing. "Barbarian" has a very long history in our language as well as most others of the Indo-European family, and it would be pure folly to think that any single historian or lexicographer is going to change the situation simply by wishing it were so. Nevertheless, if we are going to keep using the term, we need to recognize that "barbarian" and "barbaric" are not neutral or objective. Rather, for over two millennia, barbarians have been not only those who we do not like but also those who we do not understand, they are not us – they are "the other". The term is a pejorative epithet that one may apply to any individual or cause whose nature one despises or whose methods one finds incomprehensible and deplorable. I close with the words of the great historian Arnold Toynbee, more telling than ever: "We have to remember that the annals of this warfare between 'civilization' and 'barbarism' have been written almost exclusively by the scribes of the 'civilized' camp."



I hope you have found this site to be useful. If you have any corrections, additions, or comments, please contact me. Please note that I am not able to respond to all requests. Please consult a major dictionary before e-mailing your query. All material on this page © 1996-2014 Stephen Chrisomalis. Links to this page may be made without permission.

Top of page
Return to the Phrontistery