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

  • 7
    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 Apr 11 '11 at 11:08
  • 1
    @Colin: +100! excellent! where is the linguistics.SE site? But then sometimes, there -is- an explanatory reason. – Mitch Apr 11 '11 at 13:30
  • 1
    @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 Apr 11 '11 at 14:59
  • 1
    I strongly encourage the use of the word anti-Jewish/anti-Jewism. "Antisemitism" is very confusing, not etymologically accurate and is very easy for propagandists to manipulate. I've seen "anti-Jewism" listed in one or two online dictionaries, though I don't think it's considered an official word in the mainstream sense. Nevertheless, it works - without all the confusion and propaganda. – David Blomstrom Jun 20 '15 at 0:28

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.

| improve this answer | |
  • 6
    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 Apr 11 '11 at 3:31
  • 2
    @Kosmonaut: I'd say only the capital-H Holocaust refers the WWII. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Apr 11 '11 at 3:45
  • 1
    @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 Apr 11 '11 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 Apr 12 '11 at 22:52

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

| improve this answer | |
  • Could Gypsies be considered semitic? – oosterwal Apr 11 '11 at 18:11
  • 3
    @oosterwal - no Romani is indo-european but not semitic. – mgb Apr 11 '11 at 21:34
  • 1
    @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 Sep 5 '15 at 15:17

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.