Holocaust: a word, a concept, a part of history, a catastrophe. The word has come to represent the actions that killed more than 6 million European Jews.
But where did the word, itself, come from? Originally holokaustos--from the Greek holos--meaning whole, plus kaustos--meaning burnt. Burnt whole. Holokaustos can be traced back at least to the 3rd century B.C.E., where it was used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish scripture. The word stood for the Hebrew word olah, roughly translated as burnt offering.
Webster's definition is as follows: "1) An offering the whole of which is burnt; burnt offering. 2) great or total destruction of life, esp. by fire--The Holocaust--the systematic destruction of over six million European Jews by the Nazis before and during World War II."
John K. Roth writes in his book, "A Consuming Fire," that "the Jerusalem Bible uses 'holocaust' in its translations." One passage where this occurs is the story of Isaac in Genesis 22, in which God commands Abraham to offer his son as a "burnt offering." And when Abraham is about to offer his only son as a sacrifice, God instructs him not to harm Isaac, that it was only a test of his faithfulness to God.
"Names do not appear out of thin air. They are chosen and bestowed. In this situation, Jews themselves did the naming, and the heritage of that act is significant," says Roth.
Names are significant because they not only identify but suggest and evoke emotions, and also reflect how the namers feel about what they've named. It is not surprising then to note that the Hebrew word for Holocaust is shoah, which means catastrophe. The Hebrew/Yiddish word is churban, coined by victims of the Holocaust. It originally meant destruction, later meaning the destruction of the first and second temples. Until the Holocaust, it referred to the worst possible thing imaginable by the Jews.