Holocaust as we know it was used by historians during the war of 1939-1945. But the word has a much older history than that.
It came into being around the year 1250. It had the meaning of being consumed by fire, especially as a human sacrifice.
A comment in 1732 by Bishop George Berkeley writing Alciphron was “those Druids would have sacrificed many a holocaust of free thinkers”.
Then the word meant a sacrifice on a large scale. Bishop Alcock said in 1497 “very true obedience is an holocaust of martyrdom made to Cryste”.
In 1868, Mark Pattison said “by another grand holocaust of fellowships we might perhaps purchase another respite”.
Then the word referred to the complete consumption by fire, or a great slaughter or massacre.
In 1711, the poet Ken Christopher talked of “an holocaust of fontal sin” and another writer made reference to “a holocaust of your letters”.
The term holocaust comes from the Greek word holókauston, referring to an animal sacrifice offered to a god in which the whole (olos) animal is completely burnt (kaustos).
The word is mentioned in the Bible, as meaning completely destroyed by fire.
Writing in Latin, Richard of Devizes, a 12th-century monk, was the first to use in his Chronicon de rebus gestis Ricardi Primi (1192) the term "holocaustum". The earliest use of the word holocaust to denote a massacre recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1833 when the journalist Leitch Ritchie, describing the wars of the medieval French monarch Louis VII, wrote that he "once made a holocaust of thirteen hundred persons in a church", a massacre by fire of the inhabitants of Vitry-le-François in 1142.
The English poet John Milton had used the word to denote a conflagration in his 1671 poem Samson Agonistes and the word gradually developed to mean a massacre.
The term was used in the 1950s by historians as a translation of the Jewish word shoah to refer specifically to the Nazi genocide of Jews.
The biblical word shoah (also sho'ah and shoa), meaning "calamity" became the standard Hebrew term for the Holocaust as early as the 1940s, especially in Europe and Israel.
Shoah is preferred by some Jews for several reasons including the theologically offensive nature of the word "holocaust" which they take to refer to the Greek pagan custom.
In the early days, the word was preceded by “an” but later was preceded by “a”.
The word might have slipped unnoticed into the bottom drawer had it not been for the 1939-1945 war and the treatment of Jews and others.
Historians were searching for a word that would do justice to what was happening under Adolf Hitler’s rule. The words disaster, genocide, catastrophe or calamity or other similar words did not seem strong enough.
Historians, and I was not able to trace a person by name, came up with the word holocaust.
The use in this context did not become popular until A. Donat published The Holocaust Kingdom.
Many Jews were burned as well as gassed.
But my big dictionary traces the first use of the word in print, with the current meaning, as 1942, when the News Chronicle used the word holocaust.
It said the conscience of humanity stood aghast.
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