Sunday, September 23, 2012


Lame Ducks and Canards

R.A. Stewart Macalister (1870-1950), The Secret Languages of Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937), p. 73:
Many years ago, in destroying an accumulation of old papers, I came across a note which I had taken down at school from the dictation of a preceptor, and at the time presumably believed, to the effect that the Greeks called the people of the outer world 'Barbarians' because they wore beards: and I well remember how the same simple soul, peace to his innocent ashes, once told me that the authority for some other unjustifiable dogma, which he had propounded, was to be discovered 'in a book in the British Museum'—a reference which I have never yet found time to verify. If a duck so very lame could be entrusted with the task of imparting instruction in a school of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, why should not similar portents have been possible in the sixth?
Or in the twenty-first. See the farrago of nonsense about the origin of the word barbarian in a supposedly authoritative source—Robert Hendrickson, QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd edition (New York: Facts on File, 2004), p. 53:
Barba means "beard" in Latin, and when the Romans called hirsute foreigners barbarians they were strictly calling them "bearded men," though the word shortly came to mean, rightly or wrongly, "rude, uncivilized people." A barber was, of course, one who cut beards or hair. The barber pole outside barber shops today has its origins in the ancient barber's duties as a surgeon and dentist as well as a hair cutter. It was first the symbol of these professions—a blood-smeared white rag. However, barbarian may have Greek origins.
The derivation of barbarian from Latin barba is bogus, a folk etymology. The word barbarian is indubitably (not just possibly) Greek in origin. It has no connection with beards.


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