I come from a place where lots of people are of Amazhig ("Berber") descent. Hence, when I use English, I try to avoid using the words barbarian or barbaric, even though its modern-day use is not intended to offend them.

I've looked for an alternative on thesaurus.com, and could not find something which has a similar enough meaning and can be spoken with the same amount of pathos, disdain, you express when calling something "a barbaric act". (Well, there is philistine, but that's racist towards Palestinians, which doesn't solve my problem)

Even two-word combinations don't seem to quite give me what I need... brutishly uncivilized? The meaning is mostly ok, but not the right "tone".

What phrase could I use instead?

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    I think you're gonna have a hard life if you feel racially abused whenever someone uses words like barbarian, barbaric. But if it makes you feel any better you could just go with [from] Berber for literal contexts, and take your pick from any list of synonyms for the more common metaphoric contexts. – FumbleFingers May 20 '18 at 14:59
  • According to this faithful historical re-enactment, Jesus Himself ran into problems trying to get across the concept of a good Samaritan (as opposed to the racial stereotype of the day). But attitudes change, and today we only expect "good" Samaritans to be manning the suicide hotlines. – FumbleFingers May 20 '18 at 15:02
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    @FumbleFingers: I don't think there are actually any suicide hotlines in Samaria (= the northern West Bank in Palestine), what with the occupation and economic under-development at alll... – einpoklum May 20 '18 at 15:07
  • Agree, the pc literary choice is constrained . you are asking for answers that are constrained. not sure if this is on topic. – lbf May 20 '18 at 15:14
  • @einpoklum: I see the Wikipedia article on Samaria (ancient city) says In 1867, visitors found the village to have a population of 400, 'almost all Moslems'. If there are any left, and they still want to go into the help-line business, maybe the Israeli authorities could set them up with good phone links to the rest of the world. But they'd have to promise never to say Just go ahead and do it! whenever they get a call from a suicidal Israeli! :) – FumbleFingers May 20 '18 at 15:30

In present-day English, barbarian is not an exonym applied to any particular people or culture, but describes behavior. This is why your thesaurus search only yielded words with a similar, negative meaning. Today, however, very few would connect barbarian to Berber or what was known as the Barbary Coast. In fact, the most ready association for most English speakers is with a commercially available carpet woven — vaguely — like those in North Africa:

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The Greek βάρβαρος was originally a strictly binary term: there were people who spoke Greek and then everyone else whose language we don‘t understand, the βάρβαροι. This is hardly unusual: Slavic names for Germans and Germany, such as Slovak Nemci, Nemecko, mean “people whose words we don’t understand” and “land of…” Only much later, under the Romans, did the word take on the negative meaning, the only one that survives in English today.

The English word for the indigenous peoples, languages, and cultures of Northern Africa west of Egypt is Berber, a completely neutral term. If, however, in view of your reading of the word’s etymology as negative, you wish to use the endonym Imazighen (singular Amazigh), then it would be best, as a transitional measure, to include Berber in parentheses.

This strategy has been employed with some success by the Sinti and Roma peoples, especially in Germany:

Sinti and Roma have lived in Europe for centuries. They form historically established minorities in their respective countries of nationality and call themselves Sinti or Roma, whereby Sinti refers to members of the minority living in Western and Central Europe and Roma to those of eastern and southeast European origin. Roma is used as a name for the complete minority outside German-speaking areas.

On the other hand, the term "Gypsy" is an exonym of the majority population whose origins date back to the Middle Ages and which is rejected by the minority as discriminatory. When it is used in the context of historical sources, the clichés and prejudices behind this term must always be borne in mind. The term cannot be clearly derived etymologically. It comprises both negative and romanticized imagery and stereotypes which are attributed to extant people. The term is therefore first and foremost a construct. — Dokumentations- und Kulturzentrum Deutscher Sinti und Roma.

Thus when a sentence like this one appears in English, it is at least a partial victory:

Between 1933 and 1945, Sinti and Roma ("Gypsies") suffered greatly as victims of Nazi persecution.

  • "Very few" - in the US. If you live around Berbers, and you use the term, many will notice that it resembles their ethnos' name. And while it's true that the etymology of both names is from the Greek, it's still an issue. So, bottom line - you're not really answering my question... – einpoklum May 20 '18 at 16:24
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    @einpoklum no one in the UK, and possibly in many other European countries would consider barbarian to be a racist word. – Mari-Lou A May 20 '18 at 16:31
  • Actually, I fully answered your question. Use the endonym with exonym in parenthesis until it catches on, then drop the parenthetical. I can't address what you personally feel about the matter. – KarlG May 20 '18 at 16:32
  • Two comments: I understood that "Gypsies" were so called in English (also in French "gitane") because they were supposed to have come from Egypt. (They actually originated as a nomadic lower-caste group in India; in German "zigeuner" and Italian "zingaro" derive from a Greek word meaning "untouchable.) "Rom" and "Roma" and "Romany" for the name of the people and their culture is not related to Rome (the City) or Romania. And on a lighter note, would an uncivilized person with a vitamin-B deficiency be a "beriberi-an"? – tautophile May 20 '18 at 22:21

I think that, as you say, the problem you are having here is that the word you want to use (barbaric) relates to a group of people said to have the trait of behaving like that (ie barbarians) and as you are finding, once you are among such people (eg the Berbers) they do not, of course, all have those traits as described!

So how about choosing words that ‘describe the act’ rather than ‘attributing that kind of behaviour to a group of people’?

For example, you could use ‘heinous’ which means ‘unconscionably wicked’ (without ascribing that to any particular race).

Barbaric captures the feeling of: primitive, cruelly unthinking, survival based, acting without thought of consequences to the other. Or, the ‘tribal’ mores are seen as being more important than the rights of the individual.

Primitive, cruel, unfeeling, uncaring are all words you could use.

A ‘barbaric act’ is subtly ‘something we wouldn’t do’ - we are distancing ourselves socially from another group and saying we are more civilized than them.

To be honest I really hate the kind of newspaper reporting and writing that does this - that takes one group and contrasts it with another, making the first one bad.

We are all capable of ‘barbarian acts’ and we may need to reserve the right to do those, should the need arise. The veneer of civilization is thin as putty and paper.

I strongly disagree with one answerer who feels that the ‘present day use’ of a word is ‘distanced’ from its original. When I heard the word ‘barbarian’ and you mentioned ‘berbers’ I immediately thought of ‘the Barbary coast’ - it just popped into my mind - even though I have no idea where that is - it instantly arose from my sub-conscious. All the history and meaning of words remains in our subconscious and is a part of the meaning, when we use those words.

Try to find words that describe the act itself - without comparing it to groups who ‘act like that’ or ‘don’t act like that’ - which is, after all, supposition, and probably always will be, subtly or unsubtly - racist.

If you want a word a bit like ‘primitive’ and ‘generically barbarian’ how about ‘atavistic’? Which is a throw back or echo of more primitive traits.

‘Atavistically brutal’ is my suggestion.

  • Let me give you an example: Stabbing someone with a poisoned blade is heinous; bashing their skull in is barbaric. Both are cruel, unfeeling, and uncaring. Both are wicked. If I could only combine heinous with uncivilized... – einpoklum May 20 '18 at 21:18
  • How about moving away from the ’uncivilised’ idea - ie ‘we wouldn’t do that’ which is judgement - to ‘how it makes us feel’. Words like heart-rending, broken, saddened, hurt, sorrowful. Because it’s the lack of feeling in them - and it can also be the lack of feeling in us - that causes people to do things without concern for how it feels to the other. – Jelila May 20 '18 at 21:22
  • But perhaps it makes us feel contempt, disdain, condescension, and the wish to clearly demarcate a line between ourselves and the people who would do something like that. – einpoklum May 20 '18 at 22:00
  • Yes, the idea that... like... we would *never * do anything like that... is just judgement. Humans tend to judge whole blanket areas of behaviour (like barbarianism) and block them completely. But if you are camping, for example, cut your leg and need to hike out of there - you’ll need a touch of ‘barbarianism’ - to ignore your pain - and walk - so you can survive! And if you can’t summon that (because you blocked ‘barbarianism’) then you may die in the forest. – Jelila May 20 '18 at 22:15
  • Well, yes, judgement - the use of "barbaric" judges; that's what I'm looking for, except that I don't want it to relate to a specific group of people. – einpoklum May 20 '18 at 22:17

You can use the word 'feral' to apply to a human.

Of, pertaining to, or resembling a wild beast; brutal, savage.


1847 R. Gilfillan in Tait's Edinb. Mag. 14 622 It is not the feral or fiendish element in human nature.


Corbyn criticism should be less feral and hysterical

BT.com - 20 May 2018

  • I'm reminded of Wally's single word assessment in Dilbert. – Edwin Ashworth May 20 '18 at 15:58

The trouble is that any word that refers to a negative act and also to a people is going to have racist connotations. How about something like uncivilised or primitive? Or deplorable or despicable?

Or maybe scum of the Earth or just scum.

  • So, "barbaric" implies a reason or an aspect for why something is deplorable. Also, "scum of the Earth" applies to a person more than to an act or a practice. But +1 for effort. – einpoklum May 20 '18 at 15:08
  • Good point on 'scum'; it has the emotional strength that I think you are looking for, but can't be used to describe an act. – user184130 May 20 '18 at 15:13
  • @JamesRandom "It was a scummy act." :) – Jason Bassford May 20 '18 at 21:42

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