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.Reuse content