Difference Between “Barbarous” and “Barbaric”?

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Udit Chandna wonders what the difference is between barbarous and barbaric.

The short answer is not much.

Both words derive from a Greek word meaning “foreign.” The original word was coined as a nonsense word to indicate the sound of a language other than Greek. For the ancient Greeks, the only civilized language was Greek. Anything else was gibberish.

At first a “barbarian” was simply a non-Greek, a foreigner. After the Persian wars, the word took on a pejorative sense. A barbarian was not just foreign; he was uncivilized and brutal.

As far as the Greeks were concerned, the Romans were barbarians, but the Romans adopted the word to refer to any nation outside the sphere of Greek or Roman civilization,

Both barbaric and barbarous were in English by the 16th century. Barbaric was used with the meaning “foreign, strange, outlandish,” Barbarous first meant what the Romans meant by it, “not Greek or Latin,” but it soon came to mean “uncultured, savage,” and by the 1580s had taken on the sense of “savagely cruel.”

The noun barbarian entered English earlier than the adjectives. Barbarian came in via an Old French word that could mean “Berber, pagan, Saracen,” as well as a generic “barbarian.” Like the adjectives, barbarian derives from the Greek word for foreign.

In modern usage barbarous and barbaric are used interchangeably to mean “uncivilized.”

Some online uses of barbarous:

Barbarous Behavior: A high school chemistry teacher in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to a public beating of 750 lashes and …

One consequence of the Iraq war is to expose (once again) the false divide between “civilized” and “barbarous” nations. The US seems as capable of barbarism as anyone else…

the barbarous treatment of the native peoples of the New World by those bent on conquest at any cost; an aunt who abhors barbarous behavior such as eating with your fingers (illustrations from Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

Some online uses of barbaric:

Much of what’s seen today is a result of harebrained ideas and a tolerance for barbaric behavior (William E. Williams discussing dangerous conditions that exist in some public schools.)

Worst Excuse For Barbaric Behavior So Far Today: Brazilian Prison Rioters Display Decapitated Heads

Barbaric behavior leads to Somerville woman’s arrest [the behavior the woman was charged with included: assault to rob, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, resisting arrest, destruction of property, disorderly conduct and threat to commit a crime. Delicious piece of irony: the woman was identified as a Ms. Barberian!)

Considering the barbaric behavior that takes place during the New year Eve Party – should government consider enforcing prohibition on 31st and 1st ?

I would probably use barbaric to denote uncivilized behavior that includes violence, and reserve barbarous for matters of language and table manners.

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4 thoughts on “Difference Between “Barbarous” and “Barbaric”?”

  1. I may have actually used a variant, barbarity, as well. I am glad to know the Saracen or Berber connotation. I was getting worried there that you would discus barbarian, barbaric, and barbarous, and not the Barbary Pirates. Which I guess were just Saracen raiders from the Barbary Coast.

    No, wait. That was a John Wayne movie, and part of that happened in California. Times just don’t change that much, do they? California is still walking away with people’s money and squandering it in a brutal and uncivilized fashion. I ‘spose next we will be calling the US Capitol Building a Barbary Tower.

    I did get the right capitol, didn’t I? Capital being an asset of wealth or life (as in capital punishment) or the US Federal Government, and capitol being the building housing a state legislature.

    I was pretty sure it wasn’t the Captal Building, since Captal (Lat. capitalis, first, chief ), was a medieval feudal title in Gascony.

    But – what does that have to do with Barbara and Barbie, two names seldom linked with brutal, uncivilized behavior? OK, so there might be some debate about certain individuals named Barbara, but still.

    And then there is that craftsman with the bloody rag would about a white pole to mark his shop. The one with wicked blades and classic devices to maintain an edge you could . . . shave with! The barber. Does barber come from foreigner, or from brutal and uncivilized . . No, I see it comes from Barbour, old French for beard. Maybe an obscure snipe at foreigner, again?

    Now, Barb Dillingham, in Iowa, didn’t grow a beard, well, except he did that once for the Everly, IA Centennial. But otherwise I don’t know any Barbara or Barbie that has a beard. Aside from a couple of memorable dates, most haven’t been brutal, either, though those occasions might have had something to do with alcohol consumption. So I don’t anymore. Date Barbara’s or Barbie’s, that is. Or Barb Dillingham.

  2. Brad,
    There is another layer between antiquity and today – Christian. Lot of people, especially in Middle Ages, didn’t know anything about Ancient Greeks or Romans. They knew the list of Christian saints very well, however. St.Barbara, a protectress against fire and lightning, was here. So then name today has nothing to do with its antique meaning except the origin long forgotten.

  3. There is a significant difference between barbaric and barbarous as far as numismatists are concerned. In a description of ancient (minted prior to AD 500) coins, “barbarous” means “of crude, uncouth, or primitive style, with illiterate, blundered, or no inscriptions”.

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