Podcast barbarian

Printable Version
Pronunciation: bahr--ri-yên Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A crude, uncultured, heartless person, a boor; someone who lives and treats others savagely. 2. A wild or primitive person, a savage.

Notes: The meaning of today's Good Word has meandered from simply "foreign" to "crude, uncivilized", reflecting the traditional Western European view of non-Europeans. It comes from a large unfriendly family, including several nouns, barbary, barbarity, and barbarism—all meaning relatively the same thing, the stuff that makes a barbarian a barbarian. Yes, this word may be used as an adjective. It is even related to a proper name, Barbara, which became popular when the meaning of the root was just "foreign(er)".

In Play: Today's word may refer to anyone who lives in violation of most if not all the rules of human decency: "Street gangs in large cities are barbarians living in the midst of civilization." It is used less frequently to refer to primitive people since we Europeans discovered that primitive people are generally not savage. It may serve as an adjective and stretched for metaphorical effect: "Benson's barbarian treatment of his employees cost him his business."

Word History: Today's wild word comes, via Latin, from Greek barbaros "foreign, strange, ignorant". This word may have come from a PIE base *barbar- or from Arabic barbara "to babble", both of which are onomatopoetic imitations of babbling speech. The Arabic word was applied by the Arab geographers in ancient times to the natives of North Africa to the west and south of Egypt. In fact, this is probably the origin of the name of the Barbary Coast, better known for its more recent harboring of barbarian pirates. Moreover, it is probably related to Berber, the Afro-Asiatic language spoken there. (Today we thank the most civilized passion and paradox of Kyle McDonald, frequenter of the Alpha Agora, for suggesting this word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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