The final sentence of Chapter 8 of The Great Gatsby:

"It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardner saw Wilson's body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete."

I've spent some time looking online at various definitions of holocaust, and of the history of the word, and I am having a difficult time understanding what the word meant to a reader of 1925 when TGG was published. Online commentary seems to say that Gatsby and Wilson are sacrificial offers to The Old Money God. This seems reasonable. Dictionaries say that the word refers to a burnt sacrificial offering and came from the Old Testament. A google ngram search was inconclusive because the modern sense of the word completely overshadows, and didn't give any references prior to 1960.

Holocaust was also used in the early draft versions of TGG, so the word was understood and "cleared" by Maxwell Perkins. Also, there are big differences between the early draft versions of TGG and the Scribner's release. Many of these are single word additions or deletions. To my way of thinking, if Fitzgerlad had wanted to say "and the sacrificial offering was complete." he would have done so, but he stuck with that word and probably had used it all along, and he was not an author that liked to use interesting or "100 Dollar words." There are about 15 words in TGG that might require a dictionary.

My questions:

1) In 1925 what would the common reader understand of the word holocaust?

2) Etymology suggests that holocaust started being used in 1670 to mean a mass destruction of human life. In 1925 did the word have those connotations or was it understand in a different way?

3) Was the word only used in the Jewish community, and if so, was it to refer to an offering or a mass destruction?

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    Etymology Online traces the meaning to mid-13c., "sacrifice by fire, burnt offering," from Old French holocauste (12c.), or directly from Late Latin holocaustum, from Greek holokauston "a thing wholly burnt," neuter of holokaustos "burned whole," from holos "whole" (see holo-) + kaustos, verbal adjective of kaiein "to burn" (see caustic).
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 2:56
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    And my recollection from the 50s-60s, before "holocaust" came to be so closely associated with the Nazi atrocities, is that the word was often casually used to mean simply "utter disaster", such as when the puppy gets hold of a feather pillow and makes a mess of the den (though such use was no doubt informal and may never have made it into any dictionary).
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 3:00
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    @HotLicks Well, I'm not sure a reader in 1925 would make the associations that we are (mass destruction). That's why I'm asking. In any case, only two people died...how is that a holocaust...even figuratively speaking it's a stretch. When he was writing, Fitz was very aware of the reader so he must have been using the word as a 1925 reader would have understood it. Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 3:08
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    That's actually in my answer: "Holocaust" literally means (meant) burning an object whole in the Greek before it was applied to sacrifices that involve such combustion. Therefore, a literalist can use it for any situation where something was burned as a unit.
    – The Nate
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 9:08

4 Answers 4


Relying only on dictionaries to understand how a word was understood in the recent past is the equivalent of placing one's hand on a sick child's forehead to gauge temperature instead of the electronic thermometer that is in your drug cabinet. (1)

The New York Times index is free and readily searchable. To understand quickly Fitzgerald's possible intentions of his 1925 employment of "holocaust" (referencing the deaths of Gatsby and Wilson) search "holocaust" in that index for some appropriate time period.

Searching June 1 1923 to June 1 1927 produces thirty "holocausts", most reference war or an aspect of war but the range of referents is rather wide e.g.:

"5,000 SONGBIRDS PERISH IN A FIRE ... The roosters kept crowing all through the bird holocaust." [March 16 1926]

"7 YANK RUNS IN 8TH BURY RED SOX ... It was a nice little holocaust, with the Yanks scoring seven runs in one inning." [May 31 1927]

The Library of Congress has a free - somewhat awkward - searchable index of hundreds of US newspapers with a cut off date of 1924. To access that index google search >Chronicling America<.

Random 'finds' from the hundreds of "holocausts" employed in American newspapers in 1922:

"... another word war would be the most appalling holocaust since the beginning of time." [May 26 1922, Seattle Star]

And "... the approach of the Christmas holidays has come to mean ... a commercial holocaust." [Dec 13 1922, Seattle Star]

Footnote (1):

Dictionaries are not to be trusted on word history or use.

The 1989 Oxford English Dictionary's entry "holocaust" does not mention the employment of "holocaust" in the early 1960's as THE referent to the then actively feared nuclear destruction.

("Stevenson ... asked whether such blunders might not 'carelessly, accidentally, trigger the holocaust.' The former Democratic Presidential candidate, in an address to the Conference on World Tension" --- New York Times Index, May 13 1960)

And: The Oxford Dictionary leaves the impression that "holocaust's" earliest employments referenced almost entirely sacrifices to the Judeo-Christian god and that such "authorized" holocausts swamped any referents of the word to pagan sacrifices --- both in the past and in modern usage.

Yet an educated Protestant English speaker in the period 1600-1940 would have encountered "H/holocaust" as a referent to a pagan sacrifice in Latin and Greek texts but never in a Protestant Bible. Two classical pagan holocausts: 1) "With Holocausts he Pluto's altar fills." (Dryden's 1697 translation of the Aeneid, Book VI) And 2) "Jupiter opposes you ... you have neglected to ... offer ... a holocaust." (Smith's 1827 translation of Xenophon's Anabasis, p. 540 -- Xenophon's "holocaust" is the earliest recorded employment of the word (c. 365 BCE); and Xenophon's Anabasis is probably the most read text by students of classical Greek.

A significant modern "holocaust" in its pagan sense: "For him [Eli Wiesel] ... God is dead ... the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob ... has vanished forevermore ... in the smoke of a human holocaust exacted by Race, the most voracious of all idols." (From Francois Mauriac's introduction to Wiesel's NIGHT (1960) -- Mauriac received the Nobel for literature in the 1950's, Wiesel picked up a Nobel for peace in the 1980's. Wikipedia reports 6 million copies of NIGHT had been sold in the USA by 2011.)

(The above few paragraphs of the footnote are largely drawn from the appendix of the web article on the word holocaust mentioned in earlier posting. The appendix critiques the Oxford Dictionary's "holocaust" entry in some detail. For the article and its appendix google >Petrie word holocaust<)


It was not only in use in Jewish communities; the word was Greek. It referred to burnt offerings, in general, and, because of that, came to mean destruction by fire. The sense of human lives lost to fire seems to have gained ground between the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


HOLOCAUST, n. [Gr. whole,and burnt, to burn.] A burnt-sacrifice or offering, the whole of which was consumed by fire; a species of sacrifice in use among the Jews and some pagan nations.

The American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster (1828)


Holocaust (Page: 699, Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary [1913])

Hol"o*caust (?), n. [L. holocaustum, Gr. , neut. of , , burnt whole; "o'los whole + kaystos burnt, fr. kaiein to burn (cf. Caustic): cf. F. holocauste.]

  1. A burnt sacrifice; an offering, the whole of which was consumed by fire, among the Jews and some pagan nations. Milton.

  2. Sacrifice or loss of many lives, as by the burning of a theater or a ship. [An extended use not authorized by careful writers.]

(I find the wording "not authorized" interesting.)

  • So a reader in 1925 would understand the meaning of the sentence to be that Gatsby and Wilson were sacrifices in a figurative sense? What level of education was required to understand this meaning of the word? Was it in common vernacular at the time or would most reader have to resort to a dictionary to understand it? Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 3:03
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    Vocabulary is a wide spectrum, of course. I don't know frequency of use. That said:The classically educated would, by definition, at least cover the basics of classical Greek and Latin, so there's a good chance anyone university-educated would be familiar with the term. The big shift away from the study of classics hit around the revolutionary 1960s. Religious instruction gives people a chance to learn this, as well, so scholars of Judaism or Christianity are also likely to know the term and the more educated laity might, as well. As for those not in such circles, I have no idea.
    – The Nate
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 3:14
  • @michael it's a metaphor
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 3:16
  • @Mitch Well, if it is a metaphor to me it's important to know if it's referring to a sacrificial offering or to a mass destruction of life. Asking what Fitzgerald meant is opinion based but how the word was used and understood at the time I think isn't opinion based. Now, we think of holocaust as mass destruction but then...? Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 3:22
  • I find definition 2 very interesting. Not authorized by who? Also, the example in 2 talks about a burning theater fire or a ship. Did someone write that the loss of life on the Titanic was a holocaust but readers complained? Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 3:25

"holocaust" circa 1925 meant in a broad sense "destruction", e.g.

Trees fell ... Row upon row of mean 'villas' replaced the roomy suburban cottages ... the old village street was scheduled for widening ... a holocaust to progress. << (New York Times Book Review, 12 June 1927, p. 6:3)

For an article on the use of the word "holocaust" google search: >> word holocaust petrie <<


The word holocaust only ever meant a mass destruction of human life, as you put it. Do not confuse it with "the Holocaust." Unfortunately, due to that naming, the word has become somewhat colored as meaning that holocaust specifically. I will say that even as recently as the 80s, the mention of the word "holocaust" did not automatically evoke in me images of Nazis and Jews in concentration camps, not like it does today. Due to media and literature, the word has become increasingly specialized in the vernacular over the past three or four decades. People seem reticent to apply it to anything else, thus the increase of like words like "genocide," which is a kind of holocaust. For example, what we now refer to as the "genocide" of Armenians by the Turks was typically referred to as a "holocaust" when I was growing up.

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    That's inaccurate. It meant 'thing that was burned whole' or 'the burning of a whole thing' for centuries before it came to mean the burning of people. (See my answer for a reference) Genocide actually means the killing off of a people, and always has. In fact, I think it was specifically coined to mean this. Note the timing on the first known use: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/genocide
    – The Nate
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 3:24

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