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Holocaust

What does “holocaust” mean? Most people might instantly without thinking throw out a reference to the mass slaughter of humans (esp. Jews) by the Nazis during World War 2.

To illustrate, a person on Yahoo Answers asked the question: “Why is the holocaust called the ‘holocaust?” To which the ‘best answer chosen’ was:

“Because the word “holocaust” means “an act of mass destruction,” in the case of “The” Holocaust it was the mass destruction of 11 million lives.”

Technically the word “holocaust” doesn’t mean “an act of mass destruction.” That may be what the general understanding of the word today is, but words are complex things and most often have intriguing histories behind them.

Let’s turn to a modern dictionary to find out. Dictionary.com defines “holocaust” as:

  1. a great or complete devastation or destruction, esp. by fire.
  2. a sacrifice completely consumed by fire; burnt offering.
  3. (usually initial capital letter) the systematic massslaughter of European Jews in Nazi concentration campsduring World War II (usually prec. by the ).
  4. any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life.

Sounds pretty much like what we would have expected to find in a modern dictionary, but wait a minute, what was that in definition number 2? Let’s see what the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines this word as:

  1. n. [Gr. whole,and burnt, to burn.] A burnt-sacrifice or offering, the whole of which was consumed by fire; a species of sacrifice in use among the Jews and some pagan nations.

Now obviously there isn’t anything about Nazis here, this being 1828, but this is the entire definition. The word has to do with burnt-offerings, specifically, the type that were done by the Jews.

The Online Etymological Dictionary provides this information about the word:

mid-13c., “sacrifice by fire, burnt offering,” from Gk. holokauston, neut. of holokaustos “burned whole,” from holos “whole” (see safe (adj.)) + kaustos, verbal adj. of kaiein “to burn.” Originally a Bible word for “burnt offerings,” given wider sense of “massacre, destruction of a large number of persons” from 1833. The Holocaust “Nazi genocide of European Jews in World War II,” first recorded 1957, earlier known in Heb. as Shoah “catastrophe.” The word itself was used in English in reference to Hitler’s Jewish policies from 1942, but not as a proper name for them.

The word is very old and can be traced back to the New Testament. Here in Mark we have this verse:

And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. (Mark 12:33)

The phrase “whole burnt offerings” comes from the Greek word ‘holokautoma’

holokautoma: from a derivative of a compound of oloV – holos 3650 and a derivative of kaiw – kaio 2545; a wholly-consumed sacrifice (“holocaust”):–(whole) burnt offering.

holo: a primary word; “whole” or “all”, i.e. complete (in extent, amount, time or degree), especially (neuter) as noun or adverb:–all, altogether, every whit, + throughout, whole.

kaio: apparently a primary verb; to set on fire, i.e. kindle or (by implication) consume:–burn, light.

The apostle Paul used the exact same word twice in his letter to the Hebrews:

For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou would not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God. Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou would not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law; (Hebrews 10:4-8)

I am fascinated with how many words have such an interesting history to them that are lost to the understanding to those of our current generation. I think it is a sad thing that a word used to describe something sacred is tied to something so horrific.

Sadly though, this is just another on a long list of words that have been corrupted in the collective mind of society by modern events.

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Updated: November 14, 2010