Why does Semitic refer to several groups of people, including Babylonians, Assyrians, Arabs and Jews, whereas anti-Semitic only refers to Jews?

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    Because words mean what people use them to mean, not what some people think they ought to mean. (Not putting it in as an answer, because in a way it's not very helpful: but in a sense it is the whole of the answer to any question of the form "Why does/doesn't X mean Y").
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 11:08
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    @Colin: +100! excellent! where is the linguistics.SE site? But then sometimes, there -is- an explanatory reason.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 13:30
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    @Mitch: yes indeed, the historical explanation for how a word has come to have a particular meaning is often fascinating. But it is a field rife with unverified assumptions, ingenious invention masquerading as certainty, and lots of "we just don't know".
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 14:59

2 Answers 2


NOAD defines anti-Semitism thus:

hostility or prejudice against Jews

And here is the relevant entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

also antisemitism, 1881, from Ger. Antisemitismus, first used by Wilhelm Marr (1819–1904) German radical, nationalist and race-agitator, who founded the Antisemiten-Liga in 1879; see anti- + Semite. Not etymologically restricted to anti-Jewish theories, actions, or policies, but almost always used in this sense. Those who object to the inaccuracy of the term might try H. Adler's Judaeophobia (1882). Anti-Semitic (also antisemitic) and anti-Semite (also antisemite) also are from 1881, like anti-Semitism they appear first in English in an article in the "Athenaeum" of Sept. 31, in reference to German literature.

Anti-Semitic is Jewish-specific for historical reasons, as revealed by the Etymology Dictionary. In its most literal sense, anti-Semitic should relate to all Semitic cultures, but this is not the case—a great example of how history, politics, etc, shape English usage.

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    It's like how "holocaust" could refer to any massacre (and did at one time), but nowadays almost always refers to the persecution of Jews during WWII.
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 3:31
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    @Kosmonaut: I'd say only the capital-H Holocaust refers the WWII. Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 3:45
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    @Mr. Shiny and New: It's all the same when you're speaking. (I'd also argue that, in writing, while the capital-H version formally refers to WWII, any mention of "holocaust", capital or not, recalls that specific one.)
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 13:40
  • @Kosmonaut: Thanks for that example! I was trying to come up with one myself while composing the answer. Apartheid came to mind, but I wasn't too sure if it was strong enough. Haha, and I love "It's all the same when you're speaking"!!!
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Apr 12, 2011 at 22:52
  • @Jimi But it's not just history and politics that gave legs to the anti-Semitic = anti-Jewish fallacy. It is really down to the pseudo-intellectuals within the media of the 1800s and 1900s allowing the likes of Marr to get away with gross simplifications like that.
    – Trunk
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 20:21

Because when the word was coined and came into use, Jews were the only Semitic people encountered in modern European (and American) society.

  • Could Gypsies be considered semitic?
    – oosterwal
    Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 18:11
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    @oosterwal - no Romani is indo-european but not semitic.
    – mgb
    Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 21:34
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    @Colin Fine On the meta site, I commented that occasionally high-rep users were giving Answers that, while technically correct, were unsupported by any references. I was encouraged to point this out in a comment when it occurred. So.......
    – ab2
    Commented Sep 5, 2015 at 15:17

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