What is a Barbarism?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWhat is a barbarism? If you answered “anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth” you are pretty close. If you look up “barbarism” in the dictionary you will find the following definitions: “absence of culture or civilization” and “extreme cruelty or brutality.” However, in this case, we are interested in the definition of barbarism in linguistics. In this context, barbarism is defined as (1) an incorrect word; (2) a mispronunciation of a word; or (3) a badly formed word (eg, a word formed from elements of different languages). The Greeks used the term barbarism to describe foreign words that were incorporated into Greek speech or writing; they viewed these terms as a corruption of their language. (The Greeks would be apoplectic if their native language were English, which is a linguistic magpie, borrowing words from just about every language around the globe.)

A perfect example of a barbarism is when Kiarra, from the show everyone loves to hate, The Batchelor (Season 24), described what was in her goody bag: “…and inside of it [the bag] was like a cute pajama linger ree set.” What she meant to say, of course, was lingerie, which is pronounced “LAAN zher ay.” Makes you wonder how she would pronounce faux pas? Perhaps, the most famous barbarism was the tweet heard around the world on May 31, 2017. President Trump famously tweeted: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” The word “covfefe” was a mistyping of “coverage.” Unable to be accept responsibility for any mistake, Trump later claimed that the wording of that tweet was intentional. However, the word quickly entered the English lexicon: a covfefe is defined as a social media mistake. Adrienne LaFrance, a journalist for The Atlantic, wrote: “Covfefe remains the tweet that best illustrates Trump’s most preternatural gift: he knows how to captivate people, how to command and divert the attention of the masses.” Yeah, and look how that worked out with the coronavirus pandemic…

Here are some other examples of barbarisms [correct word in brackets]:

He putted the book on the shelf. [put]

Hand I the phone. [me]

The husband and wife had four childrens. [children]

Watching people die of COVID-10 is heart-wrenching. [heart-rending]

Breathalyzer [the combination of two different languages: English and Greek]

Very similar to a barbarism is a catachresis, which is defined as a word that is used in an incorrect way. Catachresis appear frequently as mixed metaphors (also known as malaphors) and wrong words in an idiom. For example, “The characters were like pawns on a checkerboard” [chessboard] or “That last comment was the straw that broke the elephant’s back” [camel].

Another similar term is solecism. While a barbarism is a mistake in morphology (how words are formed and their relationship to one another), a solecism is an error in syntax (the set of rules that define sentence structure). In other words, a solecism is a grammatical mistake. A double negative is a common solecism: “There aren’t no cups nowhere” [anywhere] or “I ain’t got no money” [don’t… any].

A related term is malapropism. A malapropism is the use of the wrong word for comedic effect; the mistake can be unintentional or intentional. The word is based on a fictional character, Mrs. Malaprop, from the play The Rivals (1775) by Richard Sheridan. Here is an example of a malapropism: “I have punctuation because I am never late!” [punctuality]. 

Another related term is spoonerism, named after William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), the Warden of New College, Oxford, who often switched the corresponding vowels or consonants between two words in a phrase. For example, “The Lord is a shoving leopard” rather than “The Lord is a loving shepherd” or “Three cheers for our queer old dean!” rather than “Three cheers for our dear old queen!”

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Read related posts: What Rhymes with Orange?
The Most Mispronounced Words
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels
What is a Pangram?
What is a Malaphor?
What is a Semordnilap?


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