General English

Origin & History of “holocaust”

Etymologically, a holocaust is a ‘complete burning’, and the word was originally used in English for a ‘burnt offering’, a ‘sacrifice completely consumed by fire’ (mark 12, 33, ‘more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices’ in the Authorized Version, was translated by William Tindale in 1526 as ‘a greater thing than all holocausts and sacrifices’). It comes via Old French and Latin from Greek holókauston, a compound formed from hólos ‘whole’ (as in English holograph (17th c.) and holism (20th c.), a coinage of the south African statesman Jan Smuts) and kaustós, a relative of Greek kaúein ‘burn’ (from which English gets caustic (14th c.) and cauterize (14th c.)). John Milton was the first English writer to use the word in the wider sense ‘complete destruction by fire’, in the late 17th century, and in the succeeding centuries several precedents were set for its modern application to ‘nuclear destruction’ and ‘mass murder’ – bishop Ken, for instance, wrote in 1711 ‘Should general flame this world consume … An Holocaust for Fontal Sin’, and Leitch Ritchie in Wanderings by the Loire 1833 refers to Louis VII making ‘a holocaust of thirteen hundred persons in a church’.