Your RDA of Irony

Grooming Hints from the Vandals

Did you think that the words barbarian and barber were just phonetic coincidences?  On the contrary, etymology has more than its share of irony.

Barbarian originally comes from the Greek word for strangers: barbaroi. The Greeks applied it to anyone who had the misfortune not to be Greek. Of course, the Romans never thought that it applied to them, so they stole the word along everything else in Hellenic culture. The Romans then used the term to describe those wild thugs across the Rhine and the Danube: hence, the term: barbarian. The Romans noticed that the ancient Germans didn’t bother to shave, and the legionnaires coined the term “barba” to describe the unkempt Teutonic facial hair. That slang became the basis for the French and Italian words for beards and our term for one who trims beards–barber. 

Of course, you erudite readers–particularly you Jeopardy fans–will raise the question, “Doesn’t Xenophobia mean a fear of foreigners?”  (So you thought you caught me!)  That is how we interpret the word, but an ancient Greek would contradict us.  To him, it would mean “a fear of strangers“, specifically Greeks from other city states.  If 500 years of civil wars are any indication, the ancient Greeks had no trouble hating each other.

And if you know anyone named Barbara, don’t tell her what her name really means.


p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day:

  1. Leah says:

    I was told (a long time ago) that the Greeks thought that the language spoken by non-Greeks was unintelligible and sonded like “bah-bah” and that was the origin of barbaroi. The OED seems to support that. Are you saying that that’s the origin of the Latin root meaning beard? Wouldn’t the Romans– the Latii– have had a term for beards before having formed legions?

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      I had the very same question. You’d think that Romulus had facial hair and a name for it. Did the early Latins use an Etruscan word until they became pretentious and adopted the Greek term?

      There are Latin words for bristles and hair. In fact, Caesar is based on the Latin word for hairy; I could see where that usage could prove fatally tactless.

      Evgenivs (the Latin form of a Greek name)

      • Leah says:

        What’s the Greek word for Beard?

        • Eugene Finerman says:

          Dear Leah,

          The Greek word for beard seems to be “genia”. I am not sure if that modern or ancient Greek, but it does sound remotely similar to the Greek word for birth and the basis of my name. So Eygenios might mean ‘well-bearded” as well as “well-born.”

          Eugene and his beard

  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply