Tony Cascarino, a television commentator for Sky Sports, might have chosen a more thoughtful word than ‘holocaust’ to describe the poor performance of Arsenal full-back Arman Traore, in his team’s 8-2 defeat by Manchester United yesterday, but demands for his, Cascarino’s, dismissal are harsh.
It is true that the word has become identified with Nazi Germany’s attempt during the Second World War to eliminate the Jewish race, but it was not invented to describe that event, having had a prior and well-established meaning.
The Oxford dictionary, as its first definition, describes holocaust as ‘destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially by fire’. It adds the wartime atrocity as a second definition, capitalized and qualified by the definite article, and offers yet a third meaning, that of a ‘Jewish sacrificial offering which is burnt completely on an altar’. Across the Atlantic, one dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary, while using pretty much the same language as Oxford’s for the first and third definitions, fails altogether to mention ‘The Holocaust’ – which is curious to say the least.
Holocaust, besides having historical antecedents, was a word used freely in the post-war period, too, and for reasons wholly unrelated to the extermination of a specific race. When I was growing up, during the era known as the Cold War, we lived in constant dread of a ‘nuclear holocaust’, resulting from a nuclear exchange between the then superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.
If excoriating Cascarino for bad taste seems mildly unfair, demanding his job strikes me as patently absurd. Yet his anchor on the broadcast immediately issued an on-air apology – presumably for the benefit of Jewish listeners – thus ensuring that his ‘gaffe’ was escalated into an incident.
We have become altogether too sensitive in matters of racial nomenclature. Some words – ‘nigger’ and ‘yid’ come to mind – are appropriately avoided because they were devised solely for the purpose of denigration, but holocaust can be and has always been applied to any form of fiery conflagration. Mr. Cascarino’s use of the word may be questioned on literal grounds, but on any other he deserves the benefit of the doubt.