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above: Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, et al. at the Nazi Party Congress in August 1929 in Nuremberg, Germany (Wikimedia Commons)

Society & Culture

The Strange Origin of the Word ‘Nazi’

It is commonly assumed that the word “Nazi” is the contraction of Adolf Hitler’s political party, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), or the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. But if that were true, then why did the Nazis hate being called “Nazi?” When the Nazis came to power, William Shirer notes in his Berlin Diary, they banned the use of this term. If it were simply a catchy nickname, derived from their actual party moniker, why this animosity? 

To arrive at the answer, we must examine the normal assumptions about the etymology of “Nazi,” and then move beyond those to the alternative theory of an insult first coined by German country folk, which then became the derogatory slur it is today.

The first normal assumption about the word’s origins is that “Nazi” is a contraction of the word “national.” Switzerland had a newspaper that went by this name, the National-Zeitung, published between 1842 and 1977. It was popularly known in Basler dialect as the Nazi-Zyttig, or National Newspaper. This paper also published a weekly magazine for children called Der kleine Nazi, meaning “the little reader of the National,” which was published until 1977 when the paper merged with another. Thus, to those from the Basel, Switzerland region, this use of the word “Nazi” had nothing to do...

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