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

  • 6
    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.

  • 5
    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.

  • Could Gypsies be considered semitic? – oosterwal Apr 11 '11 at 18:11
  • 2
    @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

protected by tchrist Sep 5 '15 at 16:08

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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