Genocide is a rare case of a word where we know who exactly coined it, a lawyer and law professor named Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin formed the word from the Greek word γένος (genos, race or tribe) and -cide (killing). Lemkin used the word in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, defining it as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” (Lemkin had argued as early as 1933 for an international law banning genocide, but I haven’t found evidence that he used the specific word before his 1944 book.)
In a Washington Post editorial from December 1944, Lemkin is quoted elaborating on what he meant by the term, broadening its application:
Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.
There is a flurry of citations of the word from December 1944, the result of a 26 November 1944 report by the U.S. War Refugee Board that for the first time made known to the U.S. public the full extent and horror of the Nazi war crimes.
The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines the crime as:
any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The Holocaust of WWII is the prototypical example of genocide and the event that caused the word to enter into common lexicon, but many other events, before and since, have been classified as genocide, including the extermination of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda, the mass killings in Darfur in the opening years of the twenty-first century, the actions of the Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia in the 1970s, and the mass killings of Armenians by the Turks in 1915. The application of the term to any particular case, except that of the Nazis, is usually controversial to some degree, with some claiming the crimes do not warrant the label of genocide or because, as in the case of Cambodia, the crimes do not fit the strict definition outlined in international law.
“genocide, n.” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“Genocide,” The Washington Post, 3 December 1944, B4.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton