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Etymology and Its Misuses

The translation into Khmer of Hédi Fried’s memoirs, “Questions I am asked about the Holocaust,” is the first text about the Nazi genocide to be available to the Cambodian public.

As the publishing was sponsored by the DC-Cam (Documentation Center of Cambodia), there is no need to benefit from visionary gifts to guess the intention underlying the publishing: a parallel between the crimes of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) and the Nazi genocide.

I do not intend here to challenge the legitimacy of such a parallel: I have done it before in a number of articles which are available on this site. I would nevertheless like to raise a question linked to the translation of the term “holocaust” in Khmer.

The translator has coined the expression បូជាភ្លើង [bociɜplɘ:ŋ]: the word បូជា (to sacrifice, offer, honor…) has a strong religious resonance and ភ្លើង (the fire), literally “sacrifice by fire” as exactly the primary/ etymological meaning of “holocaust.”

In ancient Greece or in the Jewish tradition, the holocaust (Greek holos “entire” and kaustos “burn”) refers to the sacrifice of an animal of which the flesh had to be entirely consumed.

It has to be mentioned in passing that in the Jewish tradition the term “holocaust” is not negatively connoted as there is nothing wrong with an animal sacrifice with fire: hence to designate the genocide by the Hebrew term “shoah” (calamity, destruction) has been often preferred to “holocaust”, like in Claude Lanzman’s movie “Shoah” (1985).

“Holocaust” acquired its current meaning (genocide) through a long process that began at the end of the 19th century. One of the first mentions of the term in its current meaning comes from Bernard Lazare who authored in 1894 “Anti-Semitism, Its History and Causes” [in French]. Lazare mentioned that “Jews were offered in holocaust to the angry god” during times of plagues.

As far as the general public is concerned, the popularity of the American series “Holocaust” (1978) contributed to equating genocide with holocaust.

Such a historical process tended to freeze the term holocaust into a word that could not be further divided, thus erasing its etymological origin: almost no one, with the exception of a handful of scholars, would understand “holocaust” as referring originally to a sacrifice of an animal whose flesh was entirely consumed.

We have known for a long time that the very notion of meaning has not much to do with logic or etymology but is the result of highly complex social and historical interactions. In any case, “holocaust” has from now on almost to be considered as a proper noun.

So what about បូជាភ្លើង? It is more an attempt to explain the word through etymology than a real translation and it is very unlikely to be properly understood by the Cambodian reader.


Jean-Michel Filippi