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Q From Jared Martin: Could you investigate the origins of barbarian, please? I’ve been informed that the Greek bar-bar chestnut is a folk etymology and that the true lineage of the word goes back to a historical group of people. I was taken to task for repeating this bar-bar trivia by a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who was in full battle armour at the time.

A I can understand your not wanting to argue the point under these circumstances. However, unless your informant possesses a working time machine and is able to do some original research denied to the rest of us, he’s wrong. But I think it may be possible to work out where he got this idea. At least he didn’t produce the hoary old story that foreigners were called barbarians because they were forced to wear beards, having no barbers ...

It’s generally accepted that the original Greek bárbaros for a foreigner came from an earlier sense of the word that meant someone who stammered. That’s thought to be older than the Greek language, since Sanskrit has the root barbara-s that also means stammering; it was probably in the Proto-Indo-European language predating both. With the repeated bar-bar, it is probably imitative. The Greeks presumably thought that foreigners talked as though they were stammering.

The word was taken from Greek into Latin barbaria, a foreigner, and from there into English in the fourteenth century. Its first sense was also that of a foreigner, particularly someone who was neither Greek nor Roman nor a Christian. It was only a little later that the idea of an uncouth or uncivilised person came to the fore in English, though that derogatory sense had been present in both Latin and Greek. However, neither the Greeks nor the Romans seem to have used the word to mean savagely cruel or inhuman people.

The Barbary Coast, the old name for the countries of North Africa, comes from the same source, as does its close relative Berber for the native peoples of North Africa and their language. Both terms come immediately from the Arabic barbar, but that has been shown to derive from the Greek word. I suspect your informant knew about the link between barbarian and Berber but not the background.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Sep. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 23 September 2006.