Word Atrocities: Of Little Phrases and Great Crimes

Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it—and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples—the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.

–Ronald Reagan (1981)1


I brought up matter of Holocaust Museum. It seems someone has approved a room dedicated to 1915 massacre of some Armenians by the Turks. I’m against it but don’t know what we can do.

–Ronald Reagan (1988)2


Ronald Reagan’s little phrase

In 1969, during the third year of his first term as governor of California, Ronald Reagan spoke at the monument of the genocide in Montebello during the April 24th commemoration. His speech included the following sentence: Today, I humbly bow in memory of the Armenian martyrs, who died in the name of freedom at the hands of Turkish perpetrators of genocide.”3 Twelve years later, in the first 100 days of his first term as U.S. president, Reagan issued Proclamation 4838 about Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust. The proclamation, which included the above sentence first quoted as an epigraph, was drafted by his chief speechwriter, Kenneth L. Khachigian, who has recalled: “While most proclamations routinely pass through the White House system, I felt a responsibility to ensure that the National Security apparatus was aware that this might be controversial. Thus, after completing the draft, I walked it over to the West Wing and first met with deputy national security advisor, Admiral James ‘Bud’ Nance. I showed Admiral Nance the language, and alerted him to the fact that it might be controversial. His exact words were: ‘Well, it’s the truth, isn’t it?’ I said yes, and that, in fact, my father was a survivor—having lost his mother, sister and brother in that period. But out of even more precaution, I wanted Richard Allen, President Reagan’s national security advisor, to be aware of the wording. He looked at it and said there was nothing in there he would disagree with and signed off on it. Therefore, both supported the inclusion of this wording because the Armenian Genocide was an indisputable historical act.”4

According to French-Armenian political scientist Gaidz Minassian, something else was reportedly going on behind the curtains, related to Armenian activism: “Upon instructions of the Reagan administration, the American security services pledge to the ARF to obtain from Congress a new process for recognition of the genocide, if terrorism stops. They try the same approach in direction of ASALA with less hope, due to the anti-American line of the organization. To bait the Armenians, R. Reagan recognizes, on April 22, 1981, the genocide of the Armenians.”5

Its reception seems to have been subdued. Three weeks later, the Armenian Weekly reported it in a one-column news flash under the title, “President Reagan Makes Reference to Armenian Genocide,” with a laconic note that acknowledged it as “a very important reference, since it constitutes a formal recognition of the Armenian Genocide.” It reprinted simultaneously an editorial by Asbarez that warned, “We cannot become complaisant in our efforts as the result of a Presidential proclamation which refers to ‘the genocide of the Armenians.’ We have such official government proclamations, resolutions, statements, etc., which could fill several rooms wall to wall.”6

Interestingly, the Reagan phrase came one month after the U.S. State Department had issued its annual report on human rights, which praised Turkey “as an exemplary country, an epitome of Democracy, a bastion of Western Civilization in the East” in the aftermath of the bloody coup d’état of September 1980.7 Khachigian has noted: “The State Department never saw the draft and might have raised its natural objections. But Reagan’s national security advisors also had great sensitivity to international considerations, so I believe their thinking was that speaking the ‘truth’ could not possibly disrupt the close NATO or other diplomatic ties with Turkey. And while there was some ‘outrage’ in the Turkish press, the world did not come to an end…”8


The payback


The end of the world would come later. The “genocide of the Armenians” was outweighed by the “Note” of August 1982, which read, “the State Department does not endorse allegations that the Turkish Government committed a genocide against the Armenian people,” and its half-hearted reversal of April 1983.9 In an impassionate letter in 1985, California Governor George Deukmejian reminded Reagan of a December 1983 meeting at the Oval Office, where “you told me and the assembled representatives of the Armenian-American community about your personal knowledge of the Armenian genocide and your great sorrow for the Armenian people,” as quoted by the Los Angeles Times, which in the same article reported that “the president also suggested that a day of remembrance might encourage Armenian terrorist attacks on Turks and Turkish-Americans.”10

“During the 1984 presidential elections, I wrote dozens of ‘enraged’ columns pleading with readers not to support the Reagan-Bush ticket. Back then, many prominent Armenians, mostly Republicans, were backing their partisan candidate under the guise that Reagan was good for America. Never mind the ‘petty’ Armenian genocide issue, I was told,” Armenian-American commentator Harut Sassounian recalled in 1992.11 Both Secretaries of State (George Shultz) and Defense (Casper Weinberger) were engaged to defeat genocide resolutions in 1985 and 1987.12 After a National Security Council (NSC) meeting on Aug. 6, 1987, Reagan wrote in his diary, “Our Turkish friends are nervous. The Cong[ress] is again considering a bill demanding the Turks take blame for the Ottoman Empires [sic] persecution of Armenians when it was in power.”13

Less than a year later, following another NSC meeting on June 28, 1988, the president recorded his opposition to a room in the Holocaust Museum dedicated to the “massacre of some [sic] Armenians,” although he was unsure about what to do.14 In the early 1990’s, the relentless lobby of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust by Turkish and Israeli officials finished off the problem: As any visitor knows, the prospective “Armenian room” was reduced to the inscription of Adolf Hitler’s 1939 phrase on a wall.15


‘No Legal Consequence’


In a conversation on Armenian issues in 2008 with several members of the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, Sassounian stated: “Scores of countries, parliaments, have passed resolutions recognizing it as genocide. … So at this point it’s no longer what we used to call the forgotten genocide or the hidden Holocaust. Most people who know such things are aware of it. … So we’re not clamoring anymore about the world ignoring us.”16 In his “letter from a former admirer” to President Obama, he acknowledged a year later: “Armenians actually gain nothing by having one more U.S. president reiterate what has been said before. As you know, presidential statements, just as congressional resolutions, have no legal consequence. President Reagan’s proclamation and the adoption of two House resolutions on the Armenian Genocide in 1975 and 1984 have brought nothing tangible to Armenians in terms of seeking reparations for their immense losses in lives and property.”17

Moreover, in 2012, he stated that all three branches of the U.S. government had recognized the genocide, and listed several judicial resolutions, two resolutions of the House of Representatives, and two documents of the executive, including Reagan’s mention.18 Months later, since non-beggars can be choosers, he reminded: “Armenian-Americans do not need to beg Obama to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, since President Reagan issued such a statement in his Presidential Proclamation of April 22, 1981.”19

The dictum “presidential statements, just as congressional resolutions, have no legal consequence,” has proven disputable, however. On Aug. 20, 2009, in a lawsuit on the return of Armenian Genocide-era insurance assets (Movsesian v. Victoria Versicherung), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in California overturned a state law (§354.4) that was preempted as it interfered with the federal power to conduct foreign affairs. It was argued that public statements and letters of former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had shown the executive branch’s refusal to provide official legislative recognition to the genocide. Although “presidential foreign policy in the present case is not embodied in any executive agreement,” the ruling continued, “[t]his does not…detract from the policy’s preemptive force.”20

After the successful appeal (December 2010) and reversal (February 2012), in early May 2013 the U.S. government, by the same logic of politics of power that has governed American foreign policy since the times of the failed mandate over Armenia in 1920, made reference to selective executive branch opposition and asked the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal of the reversal of “politically contentious events that occurred in the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago.”21 Despite the challenge of “foreign affairs pre-emption doctrine” by the plaintiffs (May 24), on June 10 the Supreme Court announced that it would not hear the appeal.22


‘Free pass’


Politics and human rights aside, it becomes clear that presidential statements may actually have some legal consequences: The executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, Aram Hamparian, declared in February 2012 that the re-reversal of the ruling by the Ninth District Circuit Court had underscored “the urgency of President Obama honoring his pledge to properly recognize this crime against humanity.”23 Incidentally, by using the words Medz Yeghern, Obama had unwittingly recognized the crime with its Armenian proper name of Great (Evil) Crime, but the political use of such wording remained totally unexplored and unexploited.

In a recent online comment to one of our previous articles, historian Elyse Semerdjian offered valuable insight into the “history inside the Beltway” of Obama’s choice. An unidentified U.S. government official24 had reportedly informed her “that she was observing the WATS [Workshop on Armenian Turkish Scholarship] listserv and peered into a conversation among Armenians and Turks about ‘the g word.’ From that conversation five years ago, one camp suggested that Medz Yeghern could be an alternative term that could serve as a place marker to initiate conversations between Armenians and Turks without the added legal ramifications.”25

The identity of this “one camp” is rather clear; Baskin Oran, one of the four initiators of the Turkish “apology campaign” of 2008-09, had acknowledged that the apology declaration had adopted Medz Yeghern/“Great Catastrophe,” as it was, supposedly, “the only definition, the only expression, used until the Armenian Diaspora discovered the PR value of ‘Armenian Genocide.’”26

Thus, the Armenian-led insistence on Medz Yeghern/“Great Calamity” contributed to endorsing the Turkish-led hoax, Büyük Felâket/“Great Calamity,” both at the height of the “apology campaign” and to this day. Recently, political scientist Ayda Erbal thoroughly critiqued the “poetic license” used by Turkish intellectuals and the impossible nature of this translation.27

Followed sheepishly by the Armenian-American and international press corps, Medz Yeghern/“Great Calamity” would become, paradoxically, the driving force behind “giving Obama a free pass and allowing him not to keep his solemn pledge.”28 Obama’s 2008-13 statements did not need to translate Medz Yeghern, since the disgraceful “Great Calamity” translation, by omission or by commission, had been given a free pass starting with President George W. Bush’s April 2005 statement. Unfortunately, even Armenian public radio fell in the trap as recently as April 2013: Its English website reported that “the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) of Turkey commemorated the mass killing of Armenians in 1915 on its 98th anniversary, referring to it as ‘Meds Yeghern’–Armenian for ‘great calamity’–and also calling it ‘genocide.’”29


‘Great Atrocity’?


Meanwhile, the ongoing saga of Medz Yeghern recently underwent a new development recently when Harut Sassounian unveiled his revamped version, “Great Atrocity,” without further explanation.30

However, the lack of enough linguistic grounds for “Great Atrocity” is noticeable. We have shown exhaustively that Armenian-English and English-Armenian dictionaries of the past century offer “crime” as the primary and most frequent meaning of yeghern.32 Assuming that Sassounian had not drawn upon Obama’s phrase, “one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century,” he may have reached for the only lexical source that translates yeghern as “atrocity”—Thomas Samuelian’s dictionary for language beginners, Armenian Dictionary in Transliteration (1993), whose English-Armenian section translates both “crime” and “atrocity” as yeghern.33 The only alternative may be the dictionary by Mardiros Koushakjian and Rev. Dikran Khantrouni (1970), which actually translates yeghern as “crime, atrocity, murder,’’ with “atrocity” after “crime.”34 Otherwise, some English-Armenian older dictionaries readily available in the United States translated “atrocity” as vayrakutiun (վայրագութիւն, I. A. Yeran) and kazanutiun (գազանութիւն, H. H. Chakmakjian and Mesrob Kouyoumdjian),35 which literally mean “savagery” and “bestiality,” respectively, with yeghern completely out of the picture.


The Great (Evil) Crime, the Armenian Genocide


It is worth recalling that “crime,” an action that constitutes an offense and is punishable by law, is not necessarily conducive to bloodshed (e.g., a bank fraud). However, the assumption that yeghern is a “no name crime” word, because it does not indicate the nature of the crime, lacks grounds. The word “vojir,” translated as “crime,” is more restrictive than the English word. The latest comprehensive Armenian monolingual dictionary (1992) attests that vojir means:

1) sbanutiun (սպանութիւն, killing), ariunaheghutiun (արիւնայեղութիւն, bloodletting);

2) dzanr kreagan hantsank (ծանր քրէական յանցանք, grave criminal offense), medz charakordzutiun (մեծ չարագործութիւն, great evildoing);

3) (fig.) zankvadzayin godoradz (զանգուածային կոտորած, massive massacre), with sbanutiun (սպանութիւն, killing), yeghern(akordzutiun) (եղեռն(ագործութիւն), crime), nakhjir (նախճիր, carnage), chart (ջարդ, massacre), and sbant (սպանդ, slaughter) as synonyms for godoradz, while yeghern, as we listed in a previous article, means vojir, sbant, chart; kreagan hantsank.36

One needs to know Armenian as a living language to realize that a bank fraud is a crime, but it is not a yeghern, unlike an individual and/or collective killing (sbant, chart). Furthermore, we will see the hitherto missing link between yeghern and tseghasbanutiun in the next and final installment of this series.

As a matter of fact, international law does not require the use of “the legal connotation of tseghasbanoutyoun or genocide” 31 (e.g., its use on a 24-hour basis) to legitimize Armenian demands. Uruguay, the first country to recognize the genocide in contemporary times (1965), did so without even using the word “genocide.” The sum of the facts proving specific intent and organized premeditation has qualified the legally charged term Medz Yeghern (“Great Evil Crime”) with the legal figure of genocide, and not the substitution of this proper noun by the (im)proper noun “Armenian Genocide.” The sum of the facts of Armenian and Assyrian extermination had inspired Raphael Lemkin to coin the word “genocide,” but it was the sum of the facts of Jewish extermination that gave legitimacy to the verdicts of Nuremberg, not the use of genocide in the indictment, which, as a matter of fact, British officials considered “too fancy.”37

If “it is now crystal clear that Obama’s deceptive use of ‘Meds Yeghern’…does not amount to an acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide, contrary to the gleeful pronouncements of some gullible souls,”38 then one forward-looking, politically savvy response could be to clearly show that:

1) The proper name of the event is actually “Medz Yeghern, the Armenian Genocide” and not “Armenian Genocide”; and

2) Medz Yeghern and genocide feed each other and make a unit in the same way that Shoah/Holocaust and genocide do.



1) Code of Federal Regulations. Title 3: The President. 1981 Compilation and Parts 100 and 101, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982, p. 25.

2) The Reagan Diaries, edited by Douglas Brinkley, New York: HarperCollins, 2009, p. 624.

3) Quoted in The Armenian Weekly, April 18, 2011.

4) Kenneth L. Khachigian, e-mail to the author, Dec. 11, 2012. See also Michael Bobelian, Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009, p. 169.

5) Gaidz Minassian, Guerre et terrorisme arméniens 1972-1998, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002, p. 60.

6) The Armenian Weekly, May 16, 1981.

7) The Armenian Weekly, March 28, 1981.

8) Khachigian, e-mail, Dec. 11, 2012.

9) Roger W. Smith, “The Armenian Genocide: Memory, Politics, and the Future,” in Richard Hovannisian (ed.), The Armenian Genocide: History, Ethics, Politics, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992, p. 19. See also Dennis Papazian, “Misplaced Credulity: Contemporary Turkish Attempts to Refute the Armenian Genocide,” Armenian Review, Spring-Summer 1992, p. 203.

10) Los Angeles Times, April 24, 1985.

11) Quoted in Los Angeles Times, Nov.  2, 1992.

12) Viken Guroian, “Politics and Morality of Genocide,” in Richard Hovannisian (ed.), The Armenian Genocide: History, Ethics, Politics, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992, pp. 315-316.

13) The Reagan Diaries, p. 524.

14) Ibid., 624.

15) Ronald J. Berger, Fathoming the Holocaust: A Social Problems Approach, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2002, p. 166.

16) Los Angeles Times, April 24, 2008.

17) Huffington Post, April 28, 2009.

18) The Armenian Weekly, June 5, 2012.

19) The Armenian Weekly, Oct. 23, 2012.

20) United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, N 07-56722 DC No. CV-03-09407-CAS-JWJ, Pasadena, Aug. 20, 2009.

21) The Armenian Weekly, May 11, 2013.

22) The Armenian Weekly, June 10, 2013.

23) The Armenian Weekly, Feb. 23, 2012.

24) In a follow-up to his previous claim (The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, June 13, 2009), Armenian-American commentator Yervant Azadian suggested that Samantha Power, who was a member of the National Security Council from January 2009 to March 2013, had “resorted to the ruse of putting in Mr. Obama’s mouth the term used by the late Pope John Paul II…to avoid the use of the word genocide which has finite legal determinants” (The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, June 13, 2013).

25) See www.armenianweekly.com/2013/05/15/the-exact-translation-how-medz-yeghern-means-genocide, posted on May 28, 2013. Semerdjian declined to identify her interlocutor on the grounds that “her job is sensitive.” Power did not have any official position at the time of the posting (she was nominated as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on June 5, 2013, and delivered her credentials on Aug. 1); whether this is enough to eliminate her as the source of “Meds Yeghern” remains open to speculation.

26) Quoted in Marc Mamigonian, “Commentary on the Turkish Apology Campaign,” The Armenian Weekly/Hairenik Weekly magazine, April 2009, p. 21.

27) Ayda Erbal, “Mea Culpas, Negotiations, Apologias: Revisiting the ‘Apology’ of Turkish Intellectuals,” in Birgit Schwelling (ed.), Reconciliation, Civil Society, and the Politics of Memory: Transnational Initiatives in the 20th Century, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012, pp. 85-86.

28) The Armenian Weekly, Feb. 12, 2013.

29) See www.armradio.am/en/2013/04/24/turkish-BDP-party-urges-the-authorities-to-offer-apology-to-Armenians.

30) The Armenian Weekly, Feb. 12, 2013.

31) The Armenian Weekly, Feb. 23, 2012.

32) H.H. Chakmakjian, A Comprehensive English-Armenian Dictionary, Boston: E.A. Yeran, 1922, p. 350; Adour Yacoubian, English–Armenian and Armenian-English Dictionary Romanized, Los Angeles: Armenian Archives Press, 1944, p. 170; Mesrob G. Kouyoumdjian, A Comprehensive Dictionary Armenian-English, Beirut: Atlas Press, 1970, p. 168; Mardiros Koushakdjian and Rev. Dicran Khantrouni, Armenian-English Modern Dictionary, Beirut: G. Doniguian and Sons, 1970, p. 94.

33) Thomas Samuelian, Armenian Dictionary in Transliteration, New York: Armenian National Education Committee, 1993, pp. 16, 127.

34) Koushakdjian and Khantrouni, Armenian-English Modern Dictionary, p. 94.

35) Chakmakjian, A Comprehensive English-Armenian Dictionary, p. 98; Kouyoumdjian, A Comprehensive Dictionary Armenian-English, p. 94; E.A. Yeran, Pocket Dictionary or Pocket Companion English-Armenian, ninth edition, Boston: Hairenik Press, 1960, p. 15 (first edition, ca. 1906). Yacoubian only has “atrocious” = գազանային, չար (kazanayin, char) (Yacoubian, English-Armenian and Armenian-English Dictionary Romanized, p. 10), the same as Koushakdjian and Khantrouni: “atrocious” = գազանային (kazanayin); վայրագօրէն դաժան (vayrakoren tazhan) (Mardiros Koushakdjian and Rev. Dicran Khantrouni, English-Armenian Modern Dictionary, Beirut: G. Doniguian and Sons, 1970, p. 50).

36) Ardashes Der Khachadourian, Hayots lezvi nor bararan (New Dictionary of the Armenian Language), vol. 2, Beirut: G. Doniguian and Sons, 1992, p. 525; Archbishop Knel Jerejian and Paramaz Doniguian, idem, vol. 1, p. 537.

37) See John Q. Barrett, “Raphael Lemkin and ‘Genocide’’ at Nuremberg, 1945-1946,” in C. Safferling and E. Conze (eds.), The Genocide Convention Sixty Years After its Adoption, The Hague: TMC Asser Press, 2010, pp. 44-47.

38) The Armenian Weekly, May 15, 2013.

Vartan Matiossian

Vartan Matiossian

Born in Montevideo (Uruguay) and long-time resident of Buenos Aires (Argentina), Dr. Vartan Matiossian is a historian, literary scholar, translator and educator living in New Jersey. He has published six books on Armenian history and literature (five in Armenian and one in Spanish), and scores of articles in Armenian, Spanish, and English. He is currently the executive director of the Armenian National Education Committee in New York and book review editor of Armenian Review.


  1. It does seem that Matiossian and Sassounian have decided that if you repeat a falsehood often enough, and do it in enough sources, then it becomes true. That might be good enough for outlets like Wikipedia, but I hope it does not cut it in real academia.
    Medz Yeghern DOES NOT translate to Great Crime, and I think it does a terrible disservice to the survivors of the Genocide to rewrite their “Medz Yeghern” / “Great Calamity” – the internalised concept they used to give a description to a horror that was otherwise indescribable. Sassounian and Co want dubious US politicians to be unknowingly uttering the word “crime” when they say “Medz Yeghern”, but would it not be far better to make those same politicians knowingly use the words “Armenian Genocide”?

  2. Whether or not it can be translated as “Great Crime” legitimately is certainly debatable. We’d have to get into literal meaning vs understood meaning, look at what Obama believed he was saying when he said it (based on context), consider what Armenians today hear/understand when someone says “Medz Yeghern”, or even what the people of the time heard when someone said it nearly a century ago. We could even ask what Obama was told it meant by the person who introduced the term to him (probably an aid or Armenian friend of an aid with whom he practiced its pronunciation before a speech). And if you think I’m over-complicating it, when cases like this go to court believe me all these questions are analyzed and then some.

    For me, I’d argue that no Armenian I’ve ever met has ever interpreted Medz Yeghern as that great “calamity” or “tragedy” that “befell” our people in 1915. That sounds more like we got hit by a big tornado or experienced a plague outbreak. Genocide is an act of purpose, evil intention. Calamity? Not a chance. Ask 10 random Armenians to translate Medz Yeghern and see how many say “The Great Calamity”. If you come back with 1/10 I’d be surprised…2/10 downright shocked.

    Having said all that, I completely agree with your ultimate point. I would rather see them lose the case than win on a technicality. That would actually allow Obama to have it both way like he has on so many other issues. He can tell Turkey “I never caved to Armenian pressure, I never said the word “Genocide” while simultaneously letting the Armenian people feel like they got their little victory and get us off his back. I, for one, wouldn’t want any part of that. I want the “G word”, GENOCIDE or nothing. Let Obama make his choice and live with the consequences. I couldn’t stomach seeing him get out of it on an accidental utterance…in the Armenian language no less (talk about adding insult to injury)!

    – Shant

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