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Holy Foreigner, Batman!

Why the Name of Our Fair City Says More Than We Realize


Hollister. Bixby. Storke.

Those of us living in Santa Barbara County must surely have noticed that our very geography refers to the great men-or at least rich, eponym-happy men-who helped make this spot what it is today. What strikes me about these names is they all reference people living here in the relatively recent past. We have records of them existing, their descendents still live here and some people reading this column probably even knew the people to which these names were originally attached.

The strangeness, then, of living in the Santa Barbara environs is that the county’s namesake herself-Saint Barbara-may have not existed at all. According to the City of Santa Barbara’s official historical records, Spanish sailor Sebasti¡n Vizc¡ino entered the Santa Barbara Channel on December 4, 1602. He named the area for the sainted martyr whose feast was observed by Catholics on that day.

Ol’ Barb was a big deal in her day because Catholics believe she died for love of her faith. According to the story, the third-century Nicomedian maiden’s cruel pagan father locked her in a tower. Barbara prayed, the tower burst open and she escaped, only to be eventually ratted out by a shepherd and returned home. Pagans so hated Barbara’s Christian beliefs that they beheaded her, purportedly on December 4. (According to one facet of the legend explained on Wikipedia-and notably few other places of note on the entire internet-the shepherd who turned Barbara in was promptly zapped by God and magically transformed into a statue. Even more weirdly: his flock was transformed into grasshoppers. You know-because the sheep were totally in on it.) The cruel father, by the way, was struck down by lightning. The bolt out of the blue that felled him lent Saint Barbara an association with lightning-and by extension, the status of patroness for those working with explosive firepower and anybody else whose job puts them in danger of a sudden, fiery demise. What a title: “The Saint of Imminent Doom.”

That’s third-century Nicomedia for you.

What even some of the most Catholic among us may not know is that Saint Barbara was taken off the Vatican’s official litany of saints in 1969. Other Christian sects still dig her, but some historians question whether Saint Barbara may have just been a non-Christian deity that early Catholic leaders adopted and converted into a Jesus-friendly version-hence all the abracadabra in the legends surrounding her.

What especially interests me about the name “Santa Barbara,” however, is its rather interesting etymology. (This is a column about words, after all.) Depending on how one looks at the phrase “Santa Barbara,” one could translate it a number of ways. The “Santa” can be directly translated as “saint,” of course, but it pays to think of “saint” as a description and not a title like “doctor” or “professor.” (The common practice of abbreviating it as “St.” has lent it an understandable usage similar to “Dr.” and “Prof.”) In its basic sense, “Santa” just identifies a person as being holy.

Barbara” is a bit trickier.

Though common as a woman’s name, “Barbara” comes from the Latin barbarus, meaning “foreign” and even before that from the Greek barbaros, simply meaning “not Greek.” In other words, everyone who’s not us, depending on who’s making the call.

In this sense, one could feasibly translate “Santa Barbara” as “Holy Foreigner,” which I sincerely hope was shouted at some point by Robin in the old Batman series. Also, the same Greek and Latin roots give us “barbarian,” so the goofy “Santa Barbarian” label we sometimes give ourselves is more correct that most probably realize.

Taking the word a step further back, barbarus also gives us the similar sounding English word “barbarous,” which like “barbarian” implies a certain uncultured, unrefined quality. So I say another amusing take on our fair city’s name would be “Holy Bumpkin.” Of course, our tourist industry would probably rather not promote this image.

Seeing as how the whole us-versus-them concept is about as old moment when one group of cavemen picked up rocks and the others picked up sticks, it follows then that the idea behind “barbarian” and barbaros predates even Greek. Linguists are fairly certain that the original word is a form of onomatopoeia-that is, a word that imitates sound, like “kaboom” or “click” or to reference the 60s Batman show again, the punchy “pow.” In the same way English speakers today use “blah-blah-blah” to signify unintelligible or uninteresting speech, people back in ancient Greece used bar-bar-bar in imitation of people speaking foreign languages. That rather cruel mimicking eventually gave rise to barbaros, which translated literally could mean “nonsense talk.” Thus, if we’ve peeled back all the layers of translation around “Santa Barbara,” we get my favorite of all the possible literal translations: “Holy Blah-Blah-Blah.” We’re jive, sanctified.

Santa Barbara will always be the city by the sea, “The American Riviera.” This word lover, however, will forever bat around the other implications of the name “Santa Barbara,” whether that means a pagan-turned-Christian patroness of all things that go kaboom, the tourist-friendly “Holy Foreigner,” the self-deprecating “Holy Bumpkin,” or the entirely nonsensical “Holy Blah-Blah-Blah.”

Drew Mackie also makes words regularly as an Independent reporter and on his pop culture blog, Back of the Cereal Box.

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