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O Haodha & Acton 2006

On the interpretation of a word: Porrajmos as Holocaust

Ian Hancock

Holocaust scholarship came late to the Romanies, and even now, the Romanies who died in Hitler’s Europe are usually grouped together in published studies with those referred to as “other non-Jewish” victims: the Poles, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and so on.  I have always regarded this as a mistaken categorization, if such must be made at all, because I interpret the word holocaust to mean the implementation of the “Final Solution” directive, viz. genocidal action intended to eradicate entire populations from the sphere of influence of the Third Reich.

There were only two such directives: The Final solution of the Jewish Question and The Final Solution of the Gypsy Question1.  Not one other targeted group was slated for extermination, nor was the focus of a “final solution.”  That being the case, this awful chapter in the European Romani experience—an event that has become part of our very anthem Gelem Gelem—had to be moved away from the shadow of another people’s history, and the first step towards achieving that was to give it a name, and the most widely used word for the Romani Holocaust now is Porrajmos.

It has recently been claimed that this is an interpretation of my own invention2: it isn’t.  It was offered as a possible word for “Holocaust” by a Kalderash Romani whose name I regrettably haven’t remembered, at an informal lunchtime gathering in the conference centre bar in Snagov in Romania in 1993.  A number of us were discussing what to call the Holocaust in Romani.  I thought porrajmos was particularly appropriate, but have modified it to Baro Porrajmos (“great devouring”) in my own writings since the word alone could be applied to other genocides besides the Holocaust.

Other suggested words for the Holocaust have included (besides holokaustomaripen which means “killing,” mudaripen and murdaripen, both of which mean “murder,” and samudaripen, a creation by a linguist which translates as “all” (sa-) + “murder,” but which violates the rules of Romani morphology.3 An earlier publication wholly in Romani referred to it metaphorically as the Berša Bibahtale, the “unhappy years” (Puxon & Kenrick, 1988);  Dosoftei (2007: 37) lists the expressive Kali Traš (“Black Fear”).

Porrav- is the Romani word for “devour,” and the noun porrajmos means “devouring.”  There is no other word in the language that means “devour” specifically; there is xa- “eat,” nakhav- “swallow” and parvardjov- “be fed,” but only porrav- means “devour,” i.e. to eat wolfishly.  Like nakhav-, the basic meaning of which is “make (something) pass,” “devour” is the extended application of the basic meaning of the verb porrav- which is “open wide.”  It descends from Old Indo-Aryan sputa-, through Middle Indo-Aryan phuta “to open up,” and its commonest application in the related languages spoken in India today is to blossoming, as of flowers (Turner, 1966:800), a non-metaphorical meaning it can also have in Romani.

The root has survived in a number of Romani dialects with various interpretations, both literal and non-literal.  Thus in Kalderash Vlax it means among other things “open up, rip up, gape, devour, show the teeth, yawn, glare, stare, scream, cheat, pitch a tent” and “stick out the tongue” (Boretzky & Igla, 1994:222, Gjerdman and Ljungberg 1963:322, et al.).  Demeter & Demeter have only “open wide (the eyes or mouth)” for porravav (1990:122; 263), also the only meanings provided by Barthélémy (n.d.:116) and Calvet (1993:277).  In Bosnian Vlax porav- means “force open, disjoin, devour, open the eyes, open the mouth,” while the noun poravipe means “an opening”  (Uhlik, 1939: n.p.).   Uhlik’s later dictionary, however, has only nakhavimata for “devouring” (1983:304) and “rape” as the sole meaning of poravipe (1983:336), although in that same dialect porradi bešel means “she’s sitting with legs akimbo,” with no allusion to “rape.” For Macedonian Romani Petrovski & Veličkovcki have poravipe “gape” (1998:428).  Czech Romani has našav- for “devour” and zgvalcin- for “rape” (Hübschmannová et al., 1991: 189; 288).

Metaphorically it has the extended meanings as dissimilar as “to rape” and merely “to bother someone.”  In Sinti, its derived noun poravipen means “a widening or opening up,” and by extension “freedom” or “access.”

In various Vlax dialects, derived verbal and adjectival forms include porradjov- “to stretch, widen, extend,” porrado “spacious,” “roomy,” “gape-mouthed,” “legs astride or akimbo,” “engulf” and “stepping.” Derived noun forms as metaphors include porradi “vagina” (also with the adjectival meaning of “deflowered”), and porravipe “rape.” It is in the sense of “devour,” however, that Porrajmos was offered.  Gjerdman and Ljungberg (loc. cit.) give the example te dikhleasas o sap ke prea xantsi xal, poradeasas les atuntši “if the snake should see that the man ate too little, then he would devour him” (NB not “rape him”!).

The word has been objected to by some because of some other possible meanings, specifically its use as a euphemism for “rape”4.  I happen to think this further interpretation, together with “scream” and “gape” and “tear asunder” simply adds to the overall force of the word, for what the Romani genocide did to our people.  The two words have been used together in the same context before, cf. Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nangking: the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. There is in fact a whole website devoted to “holocaust and rape analogies” ( own objection, if I had one, would be that in the Sinti dialect it has quite the opposite meaning, and the Sinti Romanies suffered especially harshly in the Nazi genocide.

“Rape” can be expressed in Vlax Romani in a number of other ways; silov-i- as a verb, silovimos or sìla as a noun (l- pe sìla  “take by force, rape” with the Slavic word sila—also with its Slavic meaning meaning of  “force” or “power” in Romani). The more vulgar expression kurr- pe sìla, is also heard, both expressions no doubt originating with forced concubinage during the centuries of slavery. For “to rape” Boretzky & Igla (1994: 237) list phučar- (lit. “make someone ask”).  In Vlax, porrav- can also refer to male sexual arousal.

But these objections from the few lack weight.  I’m reminded of the humorous Monty Python “Wankel Rotary Engine” sketch on television many years ago about “suggestive” words and phrases in English. Those who object to Porrajmos are either demonstrating the same sort of schoolboy sniggering, or else are objecting purely in order to object, which is after all a fundamentally Romani response (although we can expect reaction to the arguments being made here from the non-Romani ethnic police too). The same Romani speakers have no qualms about using such phrases as xav tj’o kar, xav tj’i mindž, xav tj’e pele for “please,” and which are not metaphors or euphemisms in any sense.  By this reasoning, such common English words as “pussy,” “cock,” “prick,” “tit,” “bum,” “dick,” “ass,” and so on should be condemned and replaced by “kitty,” “rooster,” “pierce,” “parus,” “tramp,” “Ritchie” and “donkey,” etc.  Some people actually promote this kind of word-avoidance; for marketing purposes rape seed oil is now being sold as “canola oil”— which should particularly please those worried by the word Porrajmos. 

The same argument would lead us to avoid using the word for “heavy” (phari) because it is a common euphemism for “pregnant,” and is used to save one from having to utter the real word for this condition (khamni); likewise, should we never use the proper word for a fig (smòčina), or even the word for “before” (angluni), since they are also words for vagina? Xutavipe (from xut- “jump”) also means “masturbation.” Do we say than (“place”) to avoid saying pato for “bed”? It seems that we now need euphemisms for our euphemisms.  A modified term has been introduced with the word Pharrajimos in the title of a new book by Barsony & Daroczi, (2007) from the Central European University Press in Budapest.  Like porr- this also stems from a word meaning “spread apart,” “split,” “burst,” but that too has provided the source for the Romani words for “achieve orgasm,” “vagina” and “prostitute.”

We have now four different books by four different authors using four different words for the Romani Holocaust in their respective titles (Puxon & Kenrick 1988, Auzias 1999, Gabor 2000 and Barsony & Daroczi 2007); this is quite in keeping with the overall imprecision of materials relating to Roma generally, a vagueness we contribute to ourselves.   Nevertheless the recognition and use of the word Porrajmos is spreading.  It turns up in the texts and titles of numerous articles and chapters, a book, and to date it is the name of one documentary film. A Google web-search has nearly 58,000 text entries for Porrajmos/ Porraimos/Porraimos/Poraimos, and about one thousand picture images listed for the word. lists 25 books on the Holocaust that use the word. It has given an identity and a name to the most tragic event in our entire history, and moves it from the collective into the particular. Whether the word will stand the test of time remains to be seen.



1. The earliest Nazi document referring to “the introduction of the total solution to the Gypsy problem on either a national or an international level” was drafted under the direction of State Secretary Hans Pfundtner of the Reichs Ministry of the Interior in March, 1936, and the first specific reference to “the final solution of the Gypsy question” was made by Adolf Würth of the Racial Hygiene Research Unit in September, 1937.  The first official Party statement to refer to the endgültige Lösung der Zigeunerfrage was issued in March, 1938, signed by Himmler.

2. Presumably meaning me, gypsilorist Michael Stewart (2004:564) says “an American Romany intellectual has coined the term Porrajmos, the ‘devouring’, but one is still more likely to find this term on the internet than on the lips of Roma in the lands occupied by the Germans during the Second World War.”  Speaking for most of Hungary’s nearly one million Romanies he adds “in fact since the term porrajmos has also an obscene meaning, it has recently been rejected by most Hungarian Romani speakers who use the calqued term holocausto” (op. cit., 578, n. 7.  But see also Gábor, 2000 and Barsony & Daroczi, 2007).  As a correction to these assumptions, (a) I’m not American, (b) I didn’t invent the word, and (c) holocausto (correctly holokausto in either Hungarian or Romani orthography) is not a calque but a loanword – a calque is the translation of an idiomatic use, not a direct lexical adoption.

3. Objecting to a proposed victim-specific word for the Holocaust is not just a Romani issue; a debate over the use of Shoah for the Jewish Holocaust and calls for its disuse have recently been ongoing in the French press (Meschonnic, 2005).

4. Romani does not have prefixing except in some dialects heavily influenced by non-Romani syntax, e.g. Czech Romani de-našel, “flee,” English Romani for-del “forgive.”   Like samudaripen, the word for “international” (sathemengo) is a creation by a non-Romani linguist.  The one morpheme usually regarded as an enclitic, viz. bi (“without,” “un-”), is in fact an independent word, and can be separated from its referent: bi murro mobìli “without my car.”


I want to thank Ronald Lee and Donald Kenrick for their useful comments during the preparation of this essay.  I am aware that the inclusion of certain words in this essay will offend some.  Te jertin ma, Rromale, rrudjiv tumendar jertimos, trubutno si te sikavav len ta šaj inkerav murre gundurja pa’l alomaste kadale svatoske.

Works listed

Auzias, Claire, 1999.  Samudaripen: le Génocide des Tsiganes.  Paris: L’Esprit Frappeur.
Barsony Janos & Daroczi Agnes, 2007.  Pharrajimos: The Fate of the Roma During the Holocaust.  Budapest: CEU Press.
Barthélémy, André, n.d..  Dictionnaire du Tsigane Kalderash.  n.p.
Boretzky N. & B. Igla, 1994.  Wörterbuch Romani Deutsch Englisch.  Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Calvet, Georges, 1993.  Dictionnaire Tsigane-Français.  Paris: L'Asiathique.
Chang, Iris, 1997.  The Rape of Nangking: the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: Perseus Books.
Demeter, R.S. & P.S. Demeter, 1990.  Gypsy-Russian and Russian-Gypsy Dictionary (Kalderash Dialect).  Moscow: Russky Yazyk.
Dosoftei, Alin, 2007. Romani History.  Bucharest: Joomla.
Gábor Bernáth, ed., 2000.  Porrajmos: E Roma Seron Kon Perdal Zhuvinde – Roma Holocaust Túlélők Emlékeznek.  Budapest: Royal Dutch Embassy.
Gjerdman, O. & Eric Ljungberg, 1963.  The Language of the Swedish Coppersmith Gipsy Johan Dimitri Taikon.  Uppsala: Lundquist.
Hübschmannová, M., Hana Šebková & Anna Žigová, 1991.  Romsko-Český a Česko-Romský Slovník.  Prague: SPN.
Meschonnic, Henri, 2005.Pour en finir avec le mot «Shoah»,” Le Monde, Feb. 20th.
Petrovski, T. & B. Veličkovcki, 1998.  Makedonsko-Romski i Romsko-Makedonski Rečnik.   Skopje: Vorldbuk.
Puxon, Grattan & Donald Kenrick, 1988.  Berša Bibahtale.  London: Romanestan Publications.
Stewart, Michael, 2004.  “Remembering without commemoration: the mnemonics and politics of Holocaust memories among European Roma,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological    Institute, n.s., 10:561-582.
Turner, Ralph, 1966.  A Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages.  London: Oxford University Press.
Uhlik, Rade, 1939. [A Bosnian Romani Dictionary], ms.  Edited and translated into English by Frederick George Ackerly, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 1941-3.
Uhlik, Rade, 1983.  Srpskohrvatsko-Romsko-Engelski Rečnik.  Sarajevo: Svjetlost.