Beards

Beards are in at the moment. Or at they were in somewhat recently. Even if they’re not in anymore, there are still a lot more of them around than there were a few years ago. For a humble bit of facial hair, the beard has inspired a surprising number of words in the English language, though not as much as people think…

Barber is the most logical word to share etymological roots with beard, being derived from the Latin word for beard: barba. The word barb, as in a sharp point, e.g. at the end of an arrow, also comes from barba, as they were considered to be similar in shape to beards. And then there is Barbados, which more than likely comes from the Portuguese Los Barbados, meaning the bearded. Not in reference to the people there, but to the island’s profusion of hanging vines. The name Barbarossa means red beard in Italian, and has been used in a variety of situations, most famously to refer to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, coined by the residents of Northern Italian towns he sought to conquer. He was also known as Redbeard in German (Kaiser Rotbart). I guess people back then were really, really fascinated by a red beard.

You might have noticed by now that beard is a little different from barba. This is because beard is Germanic in origin, not Latin, which I think makes sense considering how commonplace they’ve been throughout history. No need for a fancy Latin name when any barbarian can grow a beard. And now you’re probably thinking that there must surely be a link between barbarians and beards. The common assumption is that the word barbarian is derived from barba: people think of the image of clean-shaven Romans, and assume that they therefore characterised invasive foreigners as all having beards. In fact, there’s no etymological link at all. And while there were long periods where Roman men tended to shave, this was more of a fashion trend that came and went over time.

In fact, barbarian comes from Greek, as foreigners in Ancient Greece were considered to speak unintelligible gibberish, which the Greeks represented as bar bar, similar to babies’ speech. This is also probably where we get the word babble from (and not, as I’d assumed, from Babel: there’s no evidence of a direct link). This is also the origin of the name Barbara, though don’t worry Barbaras of the world: it doesn’t necessarily mean barbarian. It more than likely meant foreign in an exotic sense.

In more modern times, beard has continued to be a versatile word. To this day it’s still used to refer to a woman who marries a gay man to help conceal his sexuality (as in she acts as a disguise, like a fake beard). And now I want to find out if there was ever a bearded lady called Barbara who acted as a beard.

6 thoughts on “Beards

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