The word barmecide popped up on the HH Twitter feed earlier this week:
It’s a great and (after a week of Brexit debates) an undeniably useful word—and like all the best words, it has a superb story behind it.
Etymologically, barmecide is a corruption of the Arabic patronym Barmakid or al-Barmaki, which in turn has its roots in an ancient Persian title, barmak, once held by the high priests of Buddhist monasteries in Nava Vihara, northern Afghanistan. The descendants of these priests took the name Barmakid in honour of their predecessors, and, thanks to their influential ancestry, steadily rose in power to become one of the most important families in the mediaeval Middle East.
By the eighth century, members of the Barmakid dynasty were employed as advisors, councillors, scholars, tutors and viziers all across the Abbasid Caliphate, a grand Muslim empire that once stretched from India in the east to modern-day Tunisia and Algeria in the west.
It was around this time that the myths and folktales that would eventually become the One Thousand And One Nights first began to gain wider currency—and by then, the Barmakids were well-known enough across western Asia to make several appearances in the stories. A real-life eighth-century vizier named Ja’far al-Barmaki, for instance, is called upon to solve a gruesome murder in a tale entitled The Three Apples, while in The Tale of Attaf, he embarks on a wild adventure across the desert, only to return home to find that all of his exploits have been foretold in a book he stumbles upon in the caliph’s library.
Of all the stories in the Arabian Nights, however, the one that concerns us here is a little-known tale called The Barber’s Sixth Brother.
The Barber of Baghdad relates a total of six stories in the Arabian Nights, each one dedicated to one of his six brothers. And the final instalment in his series concerns his brother Schacabac, a luckless no-hoper who squanders all his money and ends up a starving, penniless beggar.
One day, Schacabac happened upon a vast mansion in the centre of Baghdad. Seeing a number of servants standing in the courtyard outside, he tentatively approached one of them and asked whose house it was. As the barber explains:
“My good man, where do you come from?” replied the servant. “Can’t you see for yourself that it can belong to nobody but a Barmecide?” (For the Barmecides were famed for their liberality and generosity.) My brother, on hearing this, asked the porters ... if they would give him alms. They did not refuse, but told him politely to go in, and speak to the master himself.
Inside, Schacabac found himself “in a room richly decorated with paintings”, where Barmecide himself—“an old man with a long white beard”—greeted him warmly, and called for a bowl of clean water and a sumptuous feast to be fetched for him and his guest. But the feast he served was anything but filling:
When the Barmecide had done rubbing his hands, he raised his voice, and cried, “Slave! Set food before us at once, we are very hungry!” No food was brought, but the Barmecide pretended to help himself from a dish, and carry a morsel to his mouth, saying as he did so, “Eat, my friend, eat! I entreat! Help yourself as freely as if you were at home! For a starving man, you seem to have a very small appetite! ... How do you like this bread? ... I find it particularly good myself.”
“Oh, my lord,” answered my brother, who beheld neither meat nor bread, “never have I tasted anything so delicious.”
Despite being on the verge of starvation—and despite being sat at an empty table—Schacabac gamely went along with the Barmecide’s curious joke. He pretended to eat and drink his fill, pretended to savour every mouthful, and even pretended to get drunk on jug after jug of nonexistent wine. But his carefree compliance did not go unnoticed:
At this, the Barmecide ... began to laugh, and embraced him heartily. “I have long been seeking,” he exclaimed, “a man of your description ... You have had the good grace to fall in with my humour, and to pretend to eat and to drink when nothing was there. Now you shall be rewarded by a really good supper.” Then he clapped his hands, and all the dishes that they had tasted in imagination before and during the repast were brought out. Slaves sang and played on various instruments. All the while Schacabac was treated by the Barmecide as a familiar friend, and dressed in a garment out of his own wardrobe.
And he lived HAPPILY EVER AFTER. (Well, actually he didn’t, because after the Barmecide dies, the local prince inherits his fortune, throws Schacabac out of his house, and he ends up “the slave of a Bedouin man who beat him daily”, but let’s not get into that now.)
It’s the imaginary, utterly nonexistent feast that the Barmecide served Schacabac that unsurprisingly is the origin of the word barmecide as we have it today: it refers to any promised gift or benefit that turns out to be void of real substance, or to have never actually existed at all. Even if it’s written on the side of a bus.