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Is it?

If it depends on context, please provide some examples of offensive and not offensive usage ;)

What I have in mind is to say something like "The Zulu were a savage people compared to e.g. the United Kingdom".

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Could you please clarify what you mean by offensive? –  n0nChun Mar 17 '11 at 8:48
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Yes, the example you have in mind is very offensive. It is likely to provoke great anger and, from the more patient, a history lesson. –  Tom Mar 17 '11 at 9:51
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I don't think Fred Savage finds it offensive to refer to his last name :) –  Kosmonaut Mar 17 '11 at 16:49
    
Whether the British were less savage than the Zulu depends on the victim's point of view. I'm sure there are many aboriginal people who would argue that imperialist Britain was as savage as any nation that came before it. –  oosterwal Mar 17 '11 at 21:54
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And, of course, you could never compare a people like the Zulu to a country like the United Kingdom. Whether the latter should be the English, the British or some other term is, mercifully, not something we need to decide now. –  TimLymington Mar 23 '12 at 9:50

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

When applied to animals or natural forces, it means fierce or violent. When applied to human beings, it means cruel, aggressive or vicious. So, it is very negative.

As a noun, a savage means “a member of a people regarded as primitive and uncivilized”, and is thus very offensive. It is now mainly a historical term.

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Possible exceptions to its offensiveness may be when you describe a change in a particular person: Dr. Jekyll is composed; Mr. Hyde is savage. This would avoid any comparisons to its historical use with regards to "those savages." –  MrHen Mar 17 '11 at 15:19
    
Thank you. The closest equivalent of savage in my language is mildly offensive at best, and it depends on context as well, so I apologize if my example offended anyone. –  Sejanus Mar 18 '11 at 8:50

Savage originally meant 'wild', as sauvage does in Old and modern French. It acquired two different transferred meanings when applied to human beings; as in 'savage fighters' it became 'fierce and bloodthirsty'; though this isn't always negative (whether applied to soldiers or guard-dogs) very few people would apply it to themselves, and, however apt a nineteenth-century historian might have thought your example, it can't be applied to a whole race these days. The other meaning, of 'untamed', meant 'uncivilized' in the technical sense. (Early anthropologists used savages for peoples who had not discovered agriculture, and barbarians for those who had agriculture but not metalworking). Like all scientific terms, it should have neither positive nor negative connotations; but the implications of unspoiled innocence (for Huxley in Brave New World and Rousseau as previously mentioned, for example) or animal brutishness (in too many examples to name) make it too difficult to use objectively.

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What about Rousseau's Noble Savage?

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"Noble Savage" is a good example of so-called positive racism. –  horatio Mar 17 '11 at 16:39
    
Yeah, think of Montaigne's Of Cannibals. By examining a "savage" tribe in Brazil, he offers a critique of Western civilization. Though, I wouldn't call Rousseau's "noble savage" or Montaigne's "Cannibals" examples of "so-called positive racism." --To do so misses their points. "So-called positive racism" might be better attributed to Hegel (in his Philosophy of History). –  Jon Mar 17 '11 at 22:13

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