Rhetoric and the Holocaust

The term holocaust is derived from the Greek holokauston, meaning "burnt whole," which was a derivation of the Greek translation of the Hebrew olah, a biblical term for a burnt sacrifice. Historically, the term was used to denote great destruction of human life, especially through conflagration. For that reason it was employed often by journalists in

World War II to refer not only to the destruction perpetrated by the Nazis on Jews and others but also to Allied acts such as the bombing firestorms that destroyed much of Hamburg and Dresden. It is ironic that the German press used the term first to refer to the bombing of German cities.

The use of holocaust in reference to the destruction of the European Jewish community at the hands of the Nazis gained currency by being the preferred English translation of the Hebrew word shoah. The 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence, for example, makes reference to the shoah, which is rendered as "the Nazi holocaust" in official English translations (Novick). However, in the decades after World War II the destruction of European Jewry was rarely part of American public discourse. It was only during the 1960s, particularly with the advent of the trial of the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, that the term holocaust began to be used in common discourse to refer to World War II. At first the term often was used to refer to the death of all the millions of people who were killed by the Nazis. By the late 1960s, however, the Holocaust (capitalized and usually preceded with the word the) was defined in dictionaries as the genocidal killing of millions of Jews by the Nazis during World War II.

The lowercased term holocaust, however, still is used commonly to describe great loss of human life at the hands of others, as occurred in Biafra in the 1960s, Cambodia in the late 1970s, Afghanistan in the 1980s, and Rwanda and Serbia/Bosnia in the 1990s. Over 2,000 books in print include the word holocaust in their titles, many of which do not refer to World War II: The Real Holocaust depicts the African slave trade, The Silent Holocaust describes victims of famine, and two books titled The Forgotten Holocaust discuss South American Indians and the rape of Nanking; Holocaust Island is a book of poetry about Australia by an aboriginal poet.

Despite the widespread and diverse use of the term, controversy over its proper usage outside the Nazi context remains. The American Heritage Book of English Usage reports that 99 percent of its Usage Panel, composed of over 180 experts who determine the correct employment of terms, accept the term nuclear holocaust. However, only 60 percent accept its use for the 1 million to 2 million victims of the Khmer Rouge, only 31 percent for the millions of victims of drought in Africa, and a mere 11 percent in reference to the AIDS epidemic.

The use of the term holocaust in other contexts is confounded by the fact that the rhetorical power of the word largely has been taken over by its single exemplar; every use of the term, even in lowercase or in other contexts, inevitably becomes a referent. Another complication is that the penetration of the term into the American consciousness has been astonishing. Ninety-seven percent of the public in one poll knew what the Holocaust was, a higher percentage than could identify Pearl Harbor or knew that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Japan. The majority in a second poll said that the Holocaust "was the worst tragedy in history" (Novick, p. 232). The casual use of the term outside the Nazi experience can provoke the sensitivities and strong voice of the Jewish community, which was affected singularly by the Nazi campaign of eugenic eradication and for which the Holocaust remains a powerful and personalized event. Such factors complicate the term's use in contexts other than the Nazis' actions in World War II.

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