Words: Holocaust

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The Independent Online
IN ALL the column-inches written in the past few weeks about Spielberg's Schindler's List, I remember seeing only one holocaust with a small 'h' (in the Daily Telegraph). But we don't really need a big 'H' any more. Holocaust studies, of which there have been hundreds in English alone, do use the initial capital - as Biblical studies do for the Crucifixion - but this is a mark of respect, not of identification. No one, seeing the word in print, asks 'which holocaust?', any more than they ask 'which crucifixion?'. Indeed, there must now be many who think the word never meant anything but the Nazis' treatment of the Jews. Yet it has been with us for 700 years.

A holocaust was literally a total burning - which is what its constituent parts meant in Greek - but specifically a sacrifice, or burnt offering. Not until the 17th century did it come to mean complete destruction, first by fire, then by any means. In the 1940s people began to talk about the crime committed against Jewry as 'this holocaust', and it was probably in the late 1950s that it acquired the capital 'H' that it no longer needs. Until then the atrocities were like a holocaust; now they are the thing with which other horrors are to be compared. Aids has been called 'a holocaust', and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has spoken of the threatened nuclear holocaust, but it is not of the disease, nor of the bomb, that we first think when we hear the word.

Such words are surely rare. The Revolution (French) comes near. The Fall, a catastrophe without which, according to Judaeo- Christian lore, the Holocaust could never have happened, has lost its special status, and needs an emphatic 'F' if it is not to be confused with a North American autumn. But then the Old Testament (unlike Steven Spielberg) is no longer part of our common culture.