Q&A: The origin of the term ‘barber’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're cutting remarks..

Q: Hi AWC, I have a hairy question this week.

A: We’re bristling with anticipation!

Q: I was wondering about the term “barber” – as in the classic hairdressing shop with the striped pole out the front. WHY are they called barbers?

A: It’s actually because they originally used their clippers to shear sheep and the “baaa baaa” sound became “barber”.

Q: Oh wow, really?

A: No! Bahahaaaa are you crazy? That’s absurd!

Q: I hate you.

A: But seriously, its ACTUAL backstory is quite interesting. And it takes us all the way back to the 1300s, with the word derived from the Anglo-French “barbour” – itself coming from the Latin “barba”, meaning beard.

Q: Oh, that makes sense – my great aunt Barb had quite the beard.

A: Yes, well, the original barbershops were a place to get your beard trimmed, among other things.

Q: What other things?

A: Oh, they weren’t just places that men went to gossip – barbershops were your neighbourhood venue for all sorts of minor surgeries. It wasn’t until the 1500s that King Henry VIII did away with most of that quackery and limited barbers to only performing haircuts, tooth-pulling and bloodletting.

Q: Wait, bloodletting?

A: Oh yes, it was all the rage in the Middle Ages. These barber-surgeons would cut open veins and drain them in an effort to cure everything from sore throats to the plague.

Q: Ouch. This triggers me somewhat. My cousin Jethro was famous for always giving 100% to everything he did. We really should have talked him out of donating blood…

A: Um, okay. Sorry to hear that. But yeah, barbers were essentially classed as surgeons right through until the 1700s. In fact, the iconic barber pole’s red stripe symbolised the blood, while the white was the bandages!

Q: Oh wow. What about the blue stripe?

A: Well, the original poles (first appearing in the 1680s) in Europe were just red and white, but the addition of blue in America is said to have either symbolised the blue veins or a nod to something more patriotic.

Q: Fascinating. I guess Sweeney Todd was no stranger to blood.

A: Well yes – you’re referring to the fictional character dubbed “the demon barber of Fleet Street, London” and who first appeared in a serial magazine (known as “penny dreadfuls”) during 1846. He wasn’t bloodletting however, instead simply killing his victims with his razor – and turning them into the filling for the pies bakers by his neighbour Mrs Lovett.

Q: It sure is a cut-throat industry!

A: Indeed.

Q: What about “barbershop quartets”?

A: They’re less cut-throat. Plenty of spots available.

Q: Nooo. I mean, what is the origin?

A: Ah okay. The singing groups themselves emerged in the late 19th century – with origins likely due to barbershops traditionally providing a stringed lute for customers to play while waiting. The term “barbershop quartet” is first noted in 1910 although crude “barbershop music” had been a thing for centuries prior.

Q: Any other fun facts?

A: Absolutely. Remember the original Latin “barba” for beard? Well that gave us the pointy “barb” appendage on an arrow.

Q: Like a pointy beard!

A: Exactly. And of course, a “barb” today can also be a sharp or cutting remark – again, from the same origin.

Q: I suppose that’s where “barbed wire” comes from too, right? 

A: Yes. This specific “fencing wire with sharp points or barbs” was invented in America in 1867. It can also sometimes be written as one word, “barbwire” – the original product patent name. 

Q: Does the word “barbarian” have anything to do with all this cutting and bloodletting and pointy things?

A: Haha, no, that word came to English via the Greek “barbaros” meaning strange or foreign. For two centuries from the 1600s, the African countries along the Mediterranean from Morocco to Libya were called “The Barbary Coast” by Europeans – indicating “rude, uncivilised savages”.

Q: Perhaps they just needed a haircut and a shave?

A: Maybe. Funnily, the name “Barbara” would later become very popular through the middle of the 20th century – thanks to it tapping into the more exotic, less savage, end of the “foreign and strange” spectrum.

Q: Phew, we cut through a lot today – more than just a trim! So, to recap, the barbershop was named for the pointy, barb-like beard – and the iconic pole has a bloody history!

A: That’s right – you’ll never look at it the same way again!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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