The Grammarphobia Blog

Never forget! Never again!

Q: Since the Newtown tragedy, I’ve wanted to post “Never forget” on my Facebook page, but I couldn’t trace its origin. Can you help?

A: People have used the phrase “never forget” for hundreds of years. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, dates from 1647, and we expect that a thorough search would find examples that are centuries older.

But you’re obviously wondering about the use of the phrase as an interjection in reference to a mass killing. Many people believe “Never forget!” was first used this way in referring to the Holocaust.

We can’t confirm that, but we have found an example of that usage from soon after World War II. As part of Allied de-Nazification efforts, an exhibition entitled “Never Forget” opened on Sept. 14, 1946, in Vienna.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a photo on its website from the brochure for the exhibition, with the words “Never forget!” in German: Niemals vergessen!

The website of the Austrian National Library says the exhibition, seen by 840,000 people, was organized by the graphic artist Victor Theodor Slama at the suggestion of the Soviet Union.

Also in 1946, the writer Howard Fast and the artist William Gropper published a book about the Holocaust entitled Never to Forget: The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Since then, the interjection “Never forget!” has been used often in reference to other genocides and mass killings, though most of the examples we’ve found date from the last couple of decades, especially since 9/11.

A June 25, 2005, headline in the New York Times, for example, describes the feelings of students who had to flee Stuyvesant High School as the nearby Twin Towers burned: “For This Class, ‘Remember When’ Mingles With ‘Never Forget.’ ”

“Never again!” is another phrase that’s often used in reference to the Holocaust and other atrocities. But when it was first used as an interjection in the 19th century, the phrase had nothing to do with genocides and massacres.

The OED’s earliest published reference to the phrase as an interjection is from The Pickwick Papers (1837), Charles Dickens’s first novel. The phrase appears twice in this exchange between a husband and his dying wife:

“Rouse yourself, my dear girl. Pray, pray do. You will revive yet.”

“Never again, George; never again.”

But when was the phrase first used in its genocidal sense?

The historian Raul Hilberg, a Holocaust scholar, has said prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp put up signs reading “never again” in many languages after they were freed by the Allies, but we’re not convinced.

Hilberg made his comments in an interview with the journal Logos shortly before his death in 2007, but he didn’t mention the signs in his three-volume history of the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961).

The earliest use of the phrase in reference to the Holocaust, according to the Yale Book of Quotations, is in Mein Kampf, a 1961 documentary about the Holocaust by the German-born Swedish director Erwin Leiser.

In the documentary, originally entitled Den Blodiga Tiden (Swedish for The Bloody Time), the narrator says at the end: “It must never happen again—never again.”

The phrase also became the slogan of the militant Jewish Defense League, which was founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1968. Kahane was shot to death in 1990.

The word “holocaust” has an interesting etymology. When it first showed up in English in the early 1300s, a “holocaust” was a “sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; a whole burnt offering,” according to the OED. The earliest citations were in reference to biblical sacrifices.

In the early 1700s, the word (from the Greek holokaustos, burnt whole) took on the sense of a great slaughter or massacre, initially by fire but later by war, rioting, and other means.

By the early 1940s, the word was being used to describe the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that the phrase “the Holocaust” (with the “H” capitalized) was used in reference to this Nazi genocide. Here’s how the OED describes the evolution of this new usage:

“The specific application was introduced by historians during the 1950s, probably as an equivalent to Hebrew hurban and shoah ‘catastrophe’ (used in the same sense); but it had been foreshadowed by contemporary references to the Nazi atrocities as a ‘holocaust.’ ”  

The earliest contemporary reference in the OED is from the Dec. 5, 1942, issue of the News Chronicle in London:

“Holocaust…. Nothing else in Hitler’s record is comparable to his treatment of the Jews. … The word has gone forth that … the Jewish peoples are to be exterminated. … The conscience of humanity stands aghast.”

We couldn’t find a more complete example of the News Chronicle citation elsewhere, but here’s an OED reference from a March 23, 1943, debate in the House of Lords:

“The Nazis go on killing …. If this rule could be relaxed, some hundreds, and possibly a few thousands, might be enabled to escape from this holocaust.”

The earliest Oxford examples of the phrase “the Holocaust” appear in 1957 issues of the Yad Vashem Journal. (Yad Vashem is a memorial, museum, and research center in Israel devoted to the Holocaust.)

A heading in the April 1957 issue of the journal refers to “Research on the Holocaust Period.” An article in the July issue says, “The Inquisition, for example, is not the same as the Holocaust.” (We’ve expanded on the second citation.)

Check out our books about the English language