barbarian, barbaric, barbarous
1. These words had their origins in people's ideas about foreign languages. The Greek word barbaros, ‘barbarian’, which is the ultimate source of all these words, meant someone who spoke words sounding like ba ba. To the Greeks, the barbarians were foreigners, and principally the Persians, but the word carried no depreciatory overtones in itself. Over the centuries the non-Hellenic, non-Roman, or non-Christian peoples became regarded as enemies who violated and plundered the civilized world, and this gave rise to the unfavourable connotations of the term barbarian and associated words. By an understandable process of sense-development, in the 16c to 17c the word came to be applied to any person or group regarded as uncivilized or uncultivated, and in current use has many extended meanings, although a major area of use is still historical:

• Enlightenment man has undoubtedly been a man of power, but he has also been a barbarian —A. Walker, 1988

• Many survived the depredation of the barbarian incursion of the late third century from which Britain was spared —G. Webster, 1991

• She would not have minded if he had hired the Albert Hall to denounce her as a barbarian and certainly cared nothing for his kitchen sulks and drawing-room sarcasm —A. T. Ellis, 1993.

2. Since the 15c, barbaric has been applied to foreign customs, language, and culture that are regarded as backward or uncivilized:

• The noble savage…turns out to be a barbaric creature with a club and a scalping knife —H. J. Laski, 1920

• In this country we can kill people on the roads and walk free, and rape women and get away with around four years in prison —yet we have the cheek to call the Saudis barbaric —Today, 1992

• Some of the subsidiary practices [in fox-hunting] such as the ‘blooding’ of children are little short of barbaric —Independent, 1998.

Another (17c) use of the word, to describe exotic objects brought from abroad, has been confined to literary contexts such as Lawrence of Arabia's description of Arab costume as splendid and barbaric. In modern use, it is applied to brutal or wicked physical treatment of people, and is somewhat stronger and more specific than barbarous, which has a more general reference and is softened by its use in aesthetic as well as physical contexts:

• Formulating his phrases carefully in the barbarous French prose these people used —D. Bagley, 1966

• No doubt they are also the victims of a gross and barbarous fallacy —Enoch Powell, 1991.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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