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Is it considered offensive to call a Jewish person a Semite? I've heard the phrase anti-semite or anti-semitism, but I've never heard someone call someone a Semite.

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There is simply no reason to call any person a Semite. The word really only has academic use. Perhaps you are more interested in the origin of the term anti-semitism? –  z7sg Ѫ Nov 23 '11 at 0:14
    
@z7sgѪ I see. I was just curious as to whether or not it's acceptable. –  Mahnax Nov 23 '11 at 1:28
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Even in academic contexts, it's almost always used as an adjective (as in Semitic languages). –  onomatomaniak Nov 23 '11 at 9:10
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You can politely ask this same question on judaism. That is if you already can't find the answer there. P.S. They don't practice 'general reference' as a close reason. –  Unreason Nov 23 '11 at 13:23
    
I didn't even know such a site existed. –  Mahnax Nov 23 '11 at 15:26
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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It is not offensive to call someone who is ethnically Jewish a Semite, or rather, offensive is not the best word; it would be better to say it is strange usage:

  • 'antisemite' or 'antisemitic', the more common word, is someone or something respectively that has negative ideas about things associated with Judaism the religion, people who are ethnically Jewish (of middle-eastern palestinian descent with other complicated restrictions (and that's just the start of it)) or general cultural things associated with those two.
  • 'semite' is (not particularly logically) descended from a large middle-eastern ethnic group, including Jews and Arabs (that's about it). This is an outmoded term
  • again not particularly logically, it's just not done to refer to someone who is ethnically Jewish as a Semite, not for any political reasons, but because normally you wouldn't use the outmoded term to refer to Jews and Arabs. You could use it, but people probably wouldn't understand and wonder why you just didn't say 'Jews and Arabs' like a 'normal' person would.

In short, it's not offensive exactly, just kind of weird. Sort of analogous to calling an American (yes, someone from the US) a North American. It would be logically correct, but why would you do that, when you can just say American, Canadian, Mexican or Central American. They are all so different that you wouldn't lump any together or if you knew, you'd specify which country.

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Just a diversity note. You may find that you could be frowned upon by calling "American" a "North American" in presence of other "non North American Americans". Not everybody in the world agree on giving away Vespucius' first name to the USA. –  belisarius Nov 23 '11 at 3:13
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Yes it would be weird. It'd be like calling someone Scottish a Celt. –  z7sg Ѫ Nov 23 '11 at 3:21
    
@belisarius: yes, that sentiment was recognized by my aside. I know it rankles some non-US people, but 'American' is the term of generally accepted choice. –  Mitch Nov 23 '11 at 3:24
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What meaning are you ascribing to literally? Given that Semite means "descendant of Shem" and so, as you rightly note, includes both Jews and Arabs, antisemitic surely literally means opposed to Jews and Arabs. The restriction of meaning to people who are prejudiced against Jews (and, ISTM, moderately frequent expansion from that meaning to "Holding political views which are less favourable to the state of Israel than mine") is anti-literal. –  Peter Taylor Nov 23 '11 at 9:11
    
@Peter: yes, you are right. I mistakenly left in 'Literally'. It is especially wrong given that I point out an inconsistency between the usage of one and its opposite. I'll edit. –  Mitch Nov 23 '11 at 12:32
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The word "semite" is not itself offensive, but it has an awkward, clinical quality that implies some contempt for Jews. Using "semite" suggests that "Jew" is a bad word that needs to be hidden with a more sanitized, formal word. If you don't have any problem with Jews, why not just say "Jew?"

I've heard people object to "African American" (instead of "black") on similar grounds, though obviously there's a broad spectrum of opinion on that one.

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I have no problems with Jewish people. –  Mahnax Nov 23 '11 at 3:51
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But there is a problem with "Jew": english.stackexchange.com/questions/43466/… –  ShreevatsaR Nov 23 '11 at 5:13
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Manhax: I didn't mean to suggest that you had a problem with Jews. I meant that using a clinical-sounding word for Jews might make some people think you did. –  Andrew Cone Nov 23 '11 at 15:19
    
@AndrewCone Oh, I see. –  Mahnax Nov 23 '11 at 15:26
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