To call someone a barbarian is not a very polite thing to do. Just ask my grandma. She hasn’t sent me a Christmas card since. But in my defense, how else am I supposed to react when someone bakes raisins into a batch of chocolate chip cookies? Raisins! In chocolate chip cookies! That’s like sticking a piece of broccoli on top of a cupcake. I happen to like broccoli, and raisins too, just not mixed in with dessert. But I digress.
Under its original meaning, the term “barbarian” simply refers to an outsider, or “people who are different.” This was its original meaning in early fourth century Greece. Yet as time went on, the meaning of the word slowly changed until it came to represent someone who was outlandish, rude, or brutal. At various times in history it has also meant “uncivilized” or “uncultured,” and later, “non-Christian.” (Cole, 2003, pp. 8-9) You know, basically anyone who isn’t us.
The word itself was also born in bias. When people encountered those from foreign lands speaking languages they didn’t understand, they thought their speech sounded like a bunch of nonsense, and so they mocked it by uttering “bar bar bar.” Eventually all those who spoke “bar bar bar” became barbarians, and the rest is history.
I find it rather sad that our bigotry and xenophobia shows up even in the evolution of language, so that over time any term used to describe an outsider gets attached to all those projected fears we have about people who are different. I wonder if a thousand years from now words like “foreigner” will take on similar meaning. I imagine it might if American tourists have anything to say about it.
This human tendency to ascribe all sorts of malicious, malevolent traits to those who differ from us deserves special attention in times like these. It seems to me the true barbarians might be those who give meaning to the term.