Fighting Words: The Language of Cruelty

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the day of his release from a Russian gulag in 1953. (Apic/Getty Images)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the day of his release from a Russian gulag in 1953. (Apic/Getty Images)

SOLDIERS HAVE COMMITTED cruel deeds against both enemy troops and civilians since ancient times. These may be described by the noun atrocity, derived from the Latin atrocitas, for fierceness, harshness, cruelty.

Many atrocities can be characterized as a massacre, derived from Old French words for butchery or slaughter. The 1968 My Lai incident, in which American soldiers killed hundreds of innocent Vietnamese villagers, is a recent example. [See “Something Dark and Bloody.”] Not all massacres involve the military; some are perpetrated by civilian mobs against a religious group or some hated people. Similarly, a pogrom, an anglicized Russian term first applied to events in Russia, is a vicious attack against a Jewish population, carried out by civilians but often supported or condoned by the military. The most notorious example is Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” when Nazi party officials and storm troopers wreaked destruction in Jewish communities in Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland.

More violent still was the 1941 Babi Yar massacre. In retaliation for guerrilla attacks on Nazi troops, Nazi occupiers executed virtually the entire Jewish population of Kiev, Ukraine—nearly 34,000 individuals—at a ravine known as Babi Yar. The event is considered the single largest mass killing of the Holocaust, the name given to the systematic extermination of 6 million European Jews by Nazi Germany. Holocaust comes from a Greek word meaning sacrifice by fire, and initially referred to the killing of Jews in gas chambers in concentration camps. The word’s use dates from the early 1940s.

This and other atrocities directed against an entire people are known as genocide, defined in 1948 by the United Nations as acts to destroy a national, ethnic, religious, or racial group. Genocides are not necessarily military actions; the term was first used to describe the systematic killing of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire by the Turkish military during and shortly after World War I.

Earlier history is not lacking in military atrocities. Black hole was, from the mid-18th century, the British name for a military punishment cell or lockup. But from 1756 on, such a place was often called the Black Hole of Calcutta. In that year the Indian viceroy of Bengal captured Fort William, a British stronghold in Calcutta, and imprisoned overnight most of the European garrison in a small stifling room. Of the 146 prisoners, only 23 survived until morning. (Solitary confinement is also often referred to as the hole, but this term has a different derivation.)

The imprisonment of political enemies and noncombatant but “undesirable” civilians in concentration camps is associated today mainly with the Nazi regime in Germany between 1939 and 1945. But both the term and practice were part of the Boer War (1899–1902), when Britain’s Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener interned political prisoners and foreign nationals, including many women and children, under deplorable conditions. Thousands died in similar institutions in Russia known as gulags, forced labor camps for political opponents and criminals. The name was an acronym for the Soviet agency that administered the camps from 1930 to 1960. It was introduced to the West by Nobel Prize–winning novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with his 1973 novel, The Gulag Archipelago, describing life in such a camp.

In 1942, following the surrender of American troops on the Philippine island of Bataan, the Japanese forcibly transferred 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war to prison camps. Their 60-mile-long death march (so called in English and Japanese) was characterized by severe physical abuse and murder. Thousands died, and the march was later deemed a war crime. In German, the same term (todesmarsch) referred to forced marches suffered by concentration camp prisoners. It is now used in project management, particularly in software development and engineering, to allude to employees’ overwork on a project with a high risk of failure.


Christine Ammer has written dozens of wordbooks, including Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, 3rd edition.

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