You probably remember the Soup Nazi from the comedy show, Seinfeld. Or you’ve called someone a grammar Nazi, a fashion Nazi, or a cleanliness Nazi to show they are controlling and strict. It’s time, I think, to stop using Nazi as a friendly term to mean rigid and authoritarian–in a nice way, of course. Because it’s not.
Words change over time. Ten years ago, awesome meant fall-to-your-knees in amazement, shock, or wonder. Over time, it became a word to mean “great,” then just “ok,” then it became a filler word when we didn’t know what else to say. And after that? We let it fade and used epic instead. Not too long ago, someone who said “damn” in public got a raised eyebrow. Now we drop the F-bombs to show that words don’t matter, that we are courageous and fresh, that woman can curse using the same words as men. News anchors calmly say “fricken” and “friggen” and the censors shrug it off. Words change culture; culture changes words. And we are heading into a time of great change.
But words still matter. Nazi was never a friendly term. Those who embraced Nazism were racists, anti-Semitic, and, if they were in the military, “followed orders” to deliberately kill people who were not involved in war fighting. The Jews, Romani (gypsies), mentally or physically different–the Nazis had a place for them: concentration camps. Six million people were gassed, shot, starved, or worked to death in labor camps. The shadow from the word Nazi is long and dark and echoes fear.
Jews were shown in state-approved comics as rats with big noses. Nazis made them mark their stores with yellow six-pointed stars and mocked anyone who shopped there. Broke the windows. Shoved the stock off shelves. By 1933, antisemitism was taught in public school, and the number of Jews allowed in public schools was severely limited. By 1939, there were more than 400 state and national laws restricting the public and private lives of Jews. Nazis seized Jew’s private art, jewelry, money, bank accounts, books–anything of value–before the owners were packed on train cars and sent to be gassed.
Oddly, the word Nazi had its beginning in an series of ethnic jokes. Much as Paddy is the name for the bumbling Irish in ethnic jokes, Ignatz, shortened to Nazi, was the name used for a bumbling German Bavarian peasant. When Adolf Hitler rose out of Bavaria, his party, the National Socialists, were often taunted by shortening the political name to Nazi. Yes, there was a time when that could happen. But then Germans began to pile onto Hitler’s hard-driving populism. Hitler seized on the term and turned it into one of the most chilling words in modern history.
Words matter. We are long past the days of Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes–in which Americans always outsmarted the dumb German officers. The word Nazi has returned to its roots. In August of 2017, we awoke to a group of right-wing Americans, carrying torches, and chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil,” the unifying chant for early Hitler supporters. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a sharp increase in racist groups across America in the last several years.
The word Nazi went from terrifying to outlandish because Americans defeated Germany, and now, on our own land, terrifying again. It’s not a word to be used as a joke, or as a accusation of learning applied as rigor.
Nazi should not become a “new normal.” It is always an ugly, mean, spiteful term. When you call a Nazi a Nazi, be serious. Know your history. Don’t participate in repeating it.
—Quinn McDonald is the daughter of immigrants. She is a writer who teaches writing and knows that words matter in shaping our culture. She does not want to be called a grammar Nazi.