This week Israel observes Yom HaShoah - יום השואה, whose full name is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה. This is generally translated as "Holocaust Remembrance Day". However, it is very common for Jewish writers to use the Hebrew word "Shoah" instead of the English word "Holocaust". Why is that?
Let's start by looking at the word "holocaust". Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry:
c.1250, "sacrifice by fire, burnt offering," from Gk. holokauston, neut. of holokaustos "burned whole," from holos "whole" + kaustos, verbal adj. of kaiein "to burn." Originally a Bible word for "burnt offerings," given wider sense of "massacre, destruction of a large number of persons" from 1833. The Holocaust "Nazi genocide of European Jews in World War II," first recorded 1957, earlier known in Heb. as Shoah "catastrophe." The word itself was used in Eng. in ref. to Hitler's Jewish policies from 1942, but not as a proper name for them.The word "holocaust" referring to a burnt offering sacrifice can be seen clearly in this Jewish Encyclopedia article on sacrifices. In the article, written over 100 years ago, the term holocaust as a sacrifice appears frequently. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum discusses the development of the term:
While the word holocaust, with a meaning of a burnt sacrificial offering, does not have a specifically religious connotation, it appeared widely in religious writings through the centuries, particularly for descriptions of "pagan" rituals involving burnt sacrifices. In secular writings, holocaust most commonly came to mean "a complete or wholesale destruction," a connotation particularly dominant from the late nineteenth century through the nuclear arms race of the mid-twentieth century. During this time, the word was applied to a variety of disastrous events ranging from pogroms against Jews in Russia, to the persecution and murder of Armenians by Turks during World War I, to the attack by Japan on Chinese cities, to large-scale fires where hundreds were killed.
Early references to the Nazi murder of the Jews of Europe continued this usage. As early as 1941, writers occasionally employed the term holocaust with regard to the Nazi crimes against the Jews, but in these early cases, they did not ascribe exclusivity to the term. Instead of "the holocaust," writers referred to "a holocaust," one of many through the centuries. Even when employed by Jewish writers, the term was not reserved to a single horrific event but retained its broader meaning of large-scale destruction. For example:
You are meeting at a time of great tragedy for our people. In our ... deep sense of mourning for those who have fallen ... we must steel our hearts to go on with our work ... that perhaps a better day will come for those who will survive this holocaust. (Chaim Weizmann, letter to Israel Goldstein, December 24, 1942)
What sheer folly to attempt to rebuild any kind of Jewish life [in Europe] after the holocaust of the last twelve years! (Zachariah Shuster, Commentary, December 1945, p.10)
By the late 1940s, however, a shift was underway. Holocaust (with either a lowercase or capital H) became a more specific term due to its use in Israeli translations of the word sho'ah. This Hebrew word had been used throughout Jewish history to refer to assaults upon Jews, but by the 1940s it was frequently being applied to the Nazis' murder of the Jews of Europe. (Yiddish-speaking Jews used the term churbn, a Yiddish translation of sho'ah.) The equation of holocaust with sho'ah was seen most prominently in the official English translation of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, in the translated publications of Yad Vashem throughout the 1950s, and in the journalistic coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961.
Such usage strongly influenced the adoption of holocaust as the primary English-language referent to the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry, but the word's connection to the "Final Solution" did not firmly take hold for another two decades. The April 1978 broadcast of the TV movie, Holocaust, based on Gerald Green's book of the same name, and the very prominent use of the term in President Carter's creation of the President's Commission on the Holocaust later that same year, cemented its meaning in the English-speaking world. These events, coupled with the development and creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum through the 1980s and 1990s, established the term Holocaust (with a capital H) as the standard referent to the systematic annihilation of European Jewry by Germany's Nazi regime.
Clearly, it can be understood why it might be considered offensive to describe the murder of millions as a sacrifice, particularly a religious one. So even though the term had been so used before the Nazi genocide, once the phrase "The Holocaust" came to describe the acts of the Nazis, there was a need for a more appropriate term, and many began using the Hebrew "Shoah" in English as well. This is Yad Vashem's explanation of the use of the term Shoah in languages other than Hebrew:
The biblical word Shoah (which has been used to mean “destruction” since the Middle Ages) became the standard Hebrew term for the murder of European Jewry as early as the early 1940s. The word Holocaust, which came into use in the 1950s as the corresponding term, originally meant a sacrifice burnt entirely on the altar. The selection of these two words with religious origins reflects recognition of the unprecedented nature and magnitude of the events. Many understand Holocaust as a general term for the crimes and horrors perpetrated by the Nazis; others go even farther and use it to encompass other acts of mass murder as well. Consequently, we consider it important to use the Hebrew word Shoah with regard to the murder of and persecution of European Jewry in other languages as well.
What is the origin of Shoah? The word שואה meaning "catastrophe, devastation" derives from the root שאה. According to Klein, this root originally meant "to make a din or crash", then "crash into ruins", and then "to ruin, lay waste". The original sense of making noise can be found in the related word teshua תשואה - "noise, tumult", which doesn't have a negative connotation at all (see Zecharia 4:7).