Deceptive Linguistic Structures in the Phrase 'The Holocaust'

Robert A. Hall, Jr.

At present, the phrase the Holocaust is almost universally used to refer to various aspects of the situation in which Jews found themselves under the National Socialist regime from 1933 to 1945, in Germany and occupied territories. In this usage, there are several features of linguistic, graphemic, and scmantic structures which command the belief of the average hearer in the reality of "the Holocaust" (normally quite outside his or her awareness) and at the same time leave its reference confusingly unclear. These features include the meaning of the definite article (reality), the singular number and capitalization (uniqueness), and the effects (confusion and ambiguity) of the reference of this expression.

l. The definite article the is often thought of as an "itsy-bit" word, unstressed and of little or no importance in contrast to words which are fully stressed, such as nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Yet the English definite article has a specific meaning and semantic function of its own. It commands a hearer's or reader s belief in the reality of what is referred to by the noun it modifies, and sets up a tacit presupposition, for the rest of the discourse, that this reality has been established. Consider the following joke, in which someone says: "If the dog would only catch a rabbit, we could have rabbit-pie for dinner -- if we had a dog." The humor of this utterance consists in the contradiction between what we are led to believe at the outset of the sentence -- i.e. that the speaker has a really existing dog -- and the information given at the end, namely that he does not have a dog. [l]

In the case of "the Holocaust;" the use of the definite article has a similar effect. Once we speak of "the Holocaust;" the presupposition is set up that we are referring to a reality, so that further discourse on the topic is perforce committed to acceptance of that reality. How could one even query the existence of whatever is referred to by that phrase? Hence "to deny the reality of the Holocaust" has come to be a stock slogan, used against anyone who questions any aspect of what is alleged concerning the experiences of Jews under Nazism, or even (as I know from from personal experience) to report on what others have said. It is as if one were denying the reality of the sun or the moon or the earth.

2. The meaning of the singular number of a noun in English is, of course, that only one member of the phenomena referred to exists or is relevant to the situation. In writing, we emphasize the uniqueness of an object or phenomenon by capitalizing the noun, thus giving it somewhat of the status of a proper name. There are for instance, a number of "water-gaps" in the Pennsylvania mountains, but around Stroudsburg one refers to the Delaware Water-Gap simply as the Water-Gap. Similarly with historical events, such as the Crucifixion. Many thousands of poor wretches died agonizing deaths on crosses, but for Christians, there was only one such object, the Cross, and one such event, the Crucifixion.

In the case of the Holocaust, likewise, use of the singular and capitalization of the noun serve to emphasize to any hearer (and even more so, to any reader) its uniqueness. Various commentators such as Michael A. Hoffman and Joseph Sobran, have been in the vanguard in expressing a growing awareness that the Jewish experience under the Nazis was only one of many such -- no matter how we define it -- that many groups have undergone since ancient times. [2] Yet insistence on the uniqueness of "the Holocaust" has led even to such excesses as refusal to countenance the foundation of a Roman Catholic convent at Auschwitz (Oswiecim), because that place is regarded by some as exclusively sacred to the memory of the specifically Jewish victims of "the Holocaust." [3] For the sake of the argument, let us assume for the moment that a given number of non-Jews were martyred there. Why is their suffering be considered less important than that of whatever Jewish victims there may have been? Why should the non-Jews, also, not be commemorated there?

3. The English word holocaust is a borrowing from Late Latin holocaustum "a burnt offering," which was borrowed in its turn from Greek holócauston "something wholly bumt." In addition to these meanings, it has acquired in English the further senses of "complete consumption by fire; complete destruction, esp. of a large number of persons; a great slaughter, a massacre " [4] It is in this last sense that it has come to be used in the phrase the Holocaust, but it has undergone a further extension not justified by its previous history. Its use now covers a wide range of senses, from referring to the presumed mass-execution of Jews in gas chambers or other installations, to denoting the entire experience of all Jews in Germany and in territories occupied by German troops, from the accession of the National Socialist party to power in l933 until the end of the war in 1945. It is thus possible for a person who even questions any given allegation concerning concentration-camps or gas-chambers to be accused of denying that Jews underwent any persecution or suffering at all. This type of unacknowledged shifting of meaning is known as semantic wrenching, and the taking over of a term for such special use is often called word-shanghaiing or word-kidnapping. [5]

Unscrupulous discussants have, by using these linguistic features, induced naive, unsuspecting hearers and readers to believe in the reality and uniqueness of whatever is called the Holocaust, and have at the same time wrenched its meaning and made its reference vague and imprecise. They have thus eliminated objective discussion and replaced it by obfuscation and confusion. In this way, use of the phrase the Holocaust, without further qualification, prejudges the issue. Here, as in so many other instances of propagandistic "Newspeak," we must be on our guard whenever we hear, read, or use this phrase. We must be fully aware of it various and distorted uses, if we are to realize what is happening linguistically and thus avoid being duped.


  1. Another instance which is often cited in this connection involves the first five lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree, / Where Alph, the sacred river, ran / through caverns measureless to man / down to a sunless sea." The most important word in these five lines is the in verse three, because it commands the reader's belief in the existence of Alph, and hence of the entire situation. [Try substituting a for the here, and see how flat the entire passage falls.)
  2. Cf., most recently, Michael A. Hoffman III, "Psychology and Epistemology of Holocaust 'Newspeak'," JHR Vol. 6, no. 3 (Winter 1985-86), pp. 467-478, and Mark Weber's observations in "Joseph Sobran and Historical Revisionism," JHR Vol 7, no 3 (Winter 1986-87), pp. 373-374.
  3. As widely reported in the news-media in late January, 1986, e.g. in the New York Times, January 31, I, p. 4, col 1.
  4. Cf. the Oxford English Dictionary 5.344, s.v. holocaust.
  5. If I am not mistaken, I was the first to use the expressions semantic wrench and word-shanghaiings, in my review of Maurizio Dardano, Il linguaggio dei giornali italiani, in Language 31.211-215 (1975).

From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1986-87 (Vol. 7, No. 4), pages 495-497.