Barbarian was originally a Greek term applied to any foreigner, one not sharing a recognized culture or degree of polish with the speaker or writer employing the term. The word expressed with mocking duplication ("bar-bar") alleged attempts by outsiders to speak a "real" language. A "barbarism" in language, especially Greek or Latin, is a misformed word, such as a solecism or a malapropism. Related terms are barbaric and barbarous.
Barbarian is used in its Hellenic sense by Paul in the New Testament (Romans 1:14 KJV) to describe non-Greeks, and to describe one who merely speaks a different language (1 Corinthians 14:11 KJV). The word is not used in these scriptures in the modern sense of "savage".
Historically, the term has seen widespread use. Many peoples have dismissed alien cultures and even rival civilizations as "barbarians" because they were unrecognizably strange. The Greeks admired Scythian and Eastern Gauls as heroic individuals, but considered their culture to be barbaric. The Romans indiscriminately regarded the various Germanic tribes, the settled Gauls, and the raiding Huns as barbarians all, while the Han Chinese of the Chinese Empire have regarded the Xiongnu, Tatars, Turks, Mongols, Jurchen, Manchu, and Europeans as barbaric. Japanese people called the Europeans nanban, literally Barbarians from the South, because the Portuguese ships appeared to sail from the South.
Converted barbarians have historically proved sometimes the staunchest supporters of the more developed culture they have recently subverted. Historic examples are the Lombards and the Manchu. "The best Romans", wrote Henry James, "are often northern barbarians."
Often today, barbarian is used to mean someone violent, primitive, uncouth or uncivilized in general. See also Philistine.
A non-pejorative, simply functional concept of "barbarian," as sociologists have redefined the term, depends upon a carefully-defined use of "civilization," denoting a settled, urban way of life that is organized on principles broader than the extended family or tribe, in which surpluses of necessities can be stored and redistributed and division of labor produces some luxury goods (even if only for gods and kings). The barbarian is technically a social parasite on civilization, who depends on settlements as a source of slaves, surpluses and portable luxuries: booty, loot and plunder.
Rich, deep authentic human culture exists even without civilization, as the German writers of the early Romantic generation first defined the opposing terms, though they used them as polarities in a way that a modern writer might not. "Culture" should not simply connote "civilization."
The culture of the nomad is not to be confused with the barbarian, either. The nomad subsists on the products of his flocks, and follows their needs. The nomad may barter for necessities, like metalwork, but does not depend on civilization for plunder, as the barbarian does.
In fantasy novels and role-playing games, barbarians (or berserkers) are depicted as brave uncivilized warriors, often able to attack with a crazed fury. Conan the Barbarian is best known among these. The modern sympathetic admiration for such fantasy barbarians is a direct descendent of the Enlightenment idealization of the "Noble Savage".
- Oriental, another word for an alien outsider, now also with pejorative connotations.