Differentiating “Barbarous” and “Barbaric”

It’s wonderful to know I’m not alone in helping writers improve their craft and taking that extra step in making correct word choices.

In particular, I appreciate the unyielding effort of Maeve Maddox, whose Daily Writing Tips faithfully shows up in my inbox every day. She digs into the background and contemporary use of English-language verbiage with gusto.

Here’s what Maeve wrote to distinguish barbarous and barbaric, included here with her permission.

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.”

In modern usage barbarous and barbaric are used interchangeably to mean “uncivilized.” (Click here for examples and Maddox’s complete post.)

The conclusion? Use barbaric to denote uncivilized behavior with violence ; use barbarous for matters of language and manners.



One response to “Differentiating “Barbarous” and “Barbaric”

  1. raymona anderson

    I am happy to report that Maeve and I belong to the same critique group. Among us, expertise abounds in various areas of writing, but we all look to Maeve when a knotty word usage or punctuation problem arises. Lucky you for discovering her Daily Writing Tips.

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