If 'ageism' is the prejudice or discrimination against aged persons, 'sexism' discrimination against a person's sex and 'racism' discrimination against someone's race, then why is not Semitism the word of choice to express prejudice or discrimination against a Jewish person ?

Why and when did the 'anti-' become added ?

EDIT : Ngram (1860-2008) for semitic, semitism, anti-semitic, anti-semitism. I am not certain whether the Ngram is seeing 'semitism' within 'anti-semitism' and thus getting a skewed value.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Dec 5, 2019 at 1:56

11 Answers 11


There's of course the simple detail that in the case of ageism and sexism, we differentiate between ages and sexes respectively.

Would you expect semitism to discriminate between semites? Anti-semitism doesn't distinguish people based on what kind of semite they are, but on the fact that they are. Anti-sexism would in the same way not distinguish between sexes, but discriminate people because they have a sex.

(Strictly speaking, anti-semitism does distinguish between semites, because Palestines are semites too, whereas the term usually is specifically about Jews.)

  • 1
    Otoh..Chaim Kaplan, an Orthodox Jew and Zionist, relishing the edict of 1940, requiring wearing a Jewish badge in the General Government of Poland, governed by Hans Frank: 'The conqueror is turning us into Jews whether we like it or not. Nobody is being discriminated against. The Nazis have marked us (Warsaw ghetto) with the Jewish national colours, which are our pride. The "yellow badge" of medieval days has been stuck to them Łódź ghetto), but as for me I shall wear my badge with personal satisfaction.'. So in a way...
    – Pryftan
    Dec 3, 2019 at 15:15

The terms "ageism" and "sexism" demonstrate a use of the -ism suffix similar to "racism". When it's not describing prejudices or prejudgement, the "-ism" suffix seems generally to be used to refer to a doctrine or process, as in "capitalism", "baptism", etc. Applying the suffix to "anti-semite" would seem to be consistent with the latter use, whereas "Semitism" would seem to be the former.

The suffix itself does not imply judgement or value of its subject. "Ageism" may refer to discrimination against the young even though that may not be what usually happens, just as sexism may refer to discrimination against men even though that is less frequent. If the subject implicitly applies prejudice, that's up to the subject (as with "anti-semite").

It seemed to me that these two terms might exist because of "racism", which I thought was another 20th-century invention (the word, not the act), also denoting a prejudice. Indeed, a Google ngram search seemed to support the timeline.

ngram graph of 20th century isms

But on closer inspection, the term "antisemitism" appears to go back to the 1880s, and "racism" goes back quite a bit further:

ngram graph of racism, antisemitism

It still appears that "ageism" and "sexism" were inventions of the 1960s, but as you've no doubt already discovered, the word "antisemitism" dates back to 1879 and was invented as a more scientific-sounding replacement for "Judenhass". So it seems that "Semite" and "antisemitism" are unrelated terms. Legacy often trumps logic in language.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Dec 5, 2019 at 1:56

I propose that your difficulty with this word is not because of the prefix "anti" but because of the suffix "ism".

There are hundreds and hundreds of words in English that end with "ism". (3824 according to the free dictionary.) Here's a few of them: minimalism, classicism, capitalism, literalism, polytheism, etc., etc.

If you view the Wikipedia page on the suffix -ism, you'll find that words with this suffix are often used to describe philosophies, theories, religions, and social movements. So while one person may have a semitic view of things, another may have an antisemitic view, hence semitism and antisemitism. This is how the suffix is used in the vast majority of cases.

The words ageism, sexism, and racism (and perhaps a few others) are really the exceptions to the rule here. For example, racism is not a philosophy or a theology at all. Rather it is used to describe a process of discrimination. It was in the 1920's when the word "racism" really took hold and in the 1960's and 70's other words to describe discrimination were invented that borrowed the morphology.

It makes sense to precede any of the words minimalism, classicism, capitalism, literalism, polytheism, etc. with anti, but not the words that describe discrimination.

So, antisemitism then, is a word of discrimination, not because it ends in ism, but because by definition an antisemite is one who is against the beliefs of Jews. Notice also, that we don't say the person is an antisemitist as we would refer to a person practicing racism as a racist.

To be clear, it is the word antisemite (no ism suffix) that makes us understand discrimination in this sense, not semitism or antisemitism.

  • Yes. This is the issue. It's trying to compare things that are incomparable or at least difficult to compare. Other areas with isms: medicine and science. There are others. You could use similar logic with the prefixes a- and an- also. Anti- doesn't have to be about hate either. You have analgesics (pain killers), antiemetics (anti-nausea), neuroleptics (antipsychotics), antisocial, anti- many other things. For a- you have agranulocytosis for an example.
    – Pryftan
    Dec 3, 2019 at 15:21

While I will certainly not claim that English is logical, I think there's a subtle distinction between the two types of words. In such -isms as sexism, ageism, & racism, the discrimination is on the basis of the thing, not the thing itself. That is, sex, age, and race are things that exist*. No one is against them, just discrimination on that basis.

With anti- words, the opposition is to the thing itself. People are opposed to Jews, capitalists, Nazis, or whatever, because of their nature.

*And let's not get into discussions about whether they're actually social constructs &c.

  • So, discrimination based on sex would be 'feminism' or 'masculinism' ? Or discrimination based on age would be 'youngism' or oldism' ?
    – Nigel J
    Dec 2, 2019 at 17:28
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    @Nigel J: If English was logical, I suppose. But as it is, feminism has come to mean something close to discrimination in favor of women, at least in some circles. Likewise youthism, though it's apparently used in two opposite senses: english.stackexchange.com/questions/382118/… But, while still trying to avoid the politics, it seems that the discrimination depends on one's point of view, e.g. older people may decry the "youth culture" while young people may think that old folks get the money & jobs...
    – jamesqf
    Dec 2, 2019 at 20:27
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    Try anti-feminism or anti-oldism. Dec 2, 2019 at 23:13

If I recall correctly, in the 1880s some bigot (I won't use his name here, but some googling will turn it up pretty quickly) decided that the old term for antisemitism (Judenhaß, literally: jew-hate) was too crass, while his bigotry was ~scIENnTiFiCAlLy bAcKEd~. So, to reflect this so-called rationality, he preferred to be referred to as an anti-semite instead of a regular old 'jew hater.'

The other answers are great explanations of why we use it today (and I believe one other answer was getting at my point here), but really, the reason it came about was because a proto-Nazi wanted to sound fancy.

Ref from wiktionary: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/anti-Semitism#Etymology

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    When looking at it alike that, it is alike "Hausmeister" now being called a "Facility Manager". Dec 2, 2019 at 20:08
  • This is a very likely explanation, it seems to me: someone (I didn't do the bigot the favour of looking their name up) starts calling themselves an "antisemite" and others do too... eventually this subculture/trend/approach/doctrine then gets known as "antisemitism". There's therefore probably a good case for refusing to use this term, since it served the purpose of these now thankfully long-dead Jew-haters. Maybe we, the media, the law books, etc. should refer instead to "hatred-of-people-because-they-are-Jewish". Dec 4, 2019 at 12:16

In “racism” or “ageism”, we have discrimination based on race or age, but not against “race” and “age” per se, after all, we all have a race and an age.

Once you specify a particular race that someone discriminated against, we have anti-black, anti-white, anti-Chinese etc. I don’t think we have particular words for it, but ageism can be against youngsters, or against older or elderly people.

And we have anti-racism: If you hate racism and beat up racists where you find them, that’s anti-racism and makes you an anti-racist.


Other answers have already addressed well how to interpret anti-Semitism, but I'd like to address the line of thinking/analogy in your question.

In your analogy with racism and sexism, I think you're misinterpreting "X-ism" as meaning "discriminating against a person's X". Generally, "X-ism" refers to a doctrine, ideology, system of beliefs, or de facto system of organization and thinking around X. This can be applied in a lot of ways - for an example of the range of uses, think capitalism, utilitarianism, Zionism, Buddhism, nativism, ...

In the case of words like racism, sexism, ageism, etc., the ideology/system in question is one of how society is structured in terms of hierarchy based on the characteristic.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Dec 5, 2019 at 1:56

The question really should be, why do some people feel a need to put a "-" in antisemitism.

A longer explanation is below, but first, it helps understand the etymology of antisemtism if you break it down:


Compare if you will, antiaircraft:


The final structure of antiaircraft is similar to antisemitism, but the etymology is different.

From Wikipedia:

Semites, Semitic peoples or Semitic cultures (from the biblical "Shem", Hebrew: שם‎) was a term for an ethnic, cultural or racial group who speak or spoke the Semitic languages.

First used in the 1770s by members of the Göttingen School of History, the terminology was derived from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the Book of Genesis,[6] together with the parallel terms Hamites and Japhetites. The terminology is now largely obsolete outside linguistics.

The terms "anti-Semite" or "antisemitism" came by a circuitous route to refer more narrowly to anyone who was hostile or discriminatory towards Jews in particular.

Anthropologists of the 19th century such as Ernest Renan readily aligned linguistic groupings with ethnicity and culture, appealing to anecdote, science and folklore in their efforts to define racial character. Moritz Steinschneider, in his periodical of Jewish letters Hamaskir (3 (Berlin 1860), 16), discusses an article by Heymann Steinthal criticising Renan's article "New Considerations on the General Character of the Semitic Peoples, In Particular Their Tendency to Monotheism".

Renan had acknowledged the importance of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Israel etc. but called the Semitic races inferior to the Aryan for their monotheism, which he held to arise from their supposed lustful, violent, unscrupulous and selfish racial instincts. Steinthal summed up these predispositions as "Semitism", and so Steinschneider characterised Renan's ideas as "anti-Semitic prejudice".

May also be worth noting, this is a question about etymology - the history of the word. Arguments based on modern usage of English are irrelevant.


As far as I can tell, and i am by no means an expert on the topic, though i am a big fan of etymology.

The term is derived from the anti Jewish propoganda machine. Where before there was being a Semite, or Semitic in culture, followed by Semitismus. As terms to describe the culture or spirit of Jewdaism in its entirety, was then followed by the antonistic version.

Anti-semite, and then anti-semitismus or nowadays antisemitism.

The progress of this word throughout history was changed when it encountered the German language. Ironically we use the same word the anti semite movement created except nowadays it has a negative connotation instead of a positive one like it did back then.

Antisemiten-Liga being the German word for "League of Anti Semites".

So unlike racism and ageism, which took a different path to its creation, anti-semitism is not borne of the same rules.

Hope this helps :)

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    The dictionary says the word anti-Semitism was first recorded in 1880-85, predating the Nazi party by a few decades.
    – nnnnnn
    Dec 2, 2019 at 6:21
  • @nnnnnn Even my referencing the Antisemiten-Liga is pre Nazi, thanks for pointing that out, I referred to the Nazi party but it should have been the Anti Semite movement which was started long before then. I was pre-occupied with making sure i didnt use German where it should have been Nazi in reference to Antisemitism and forgot in the process that Nazis arent even a part of this.
    – RustyUK
    Dec 2, 2019 at 6:43
  • The small problem with your explanation is -that anti-semitism not only goes against jewish people - but against everything "jewish" - including their rightful state of Israel. But as often the whole story is way more complicated. In Germany the earliest expressions came up in the medieval times. Jews were allowed to earn money by means of having money - they were often the financiers of christian churches and whole cities. (Example in Cologne - jews in Deutz paid for the Cologne Dome and helped the city during crisis but were hated for having money. They were accused of bringing the plague
    – eagle275
    Dec 2, 2019 at 15:24
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    @eagle275 I get your point but the question was about the origin of the word, which was around 1880 as nnnnnn pointed out. So im not sure what you are getting at. I was not saying that this word is the source or starting point of anti-semitism.
    – RustyUK
    Dec 3, 2019 at 0:53

An anti-Semite is one who opposes Semites. "Anti-" indicates opposition.

"Ageism" is not opposition to persons of whom it can be said only that there is some age appertaining to them; that is true of everyone.


Anti- simply means against in Latin — but the meaning always depends on the term that follows it.

According to the Wikipedia article on anti-Semitism:

From German Antisemitismus, which was coined in 1879 by German political agitator Wilhelm Marr to replace Judenhass (literally “Jew-hatred”) to make hatred of the Jews seem rational and sanctioned by scientific knowledge. The similar term antisemitisch (“anti-semitic”) was first used in 1860, by Jewish scholar Moritz Steinschneider.

The issue is just that Judenhass and Antisemitismus are not the same thing — because one is against the religion of Judaism (but more often, hatred against rich people who have money as their religion) and the other one can be interpreted as either racial or linguistic. Only about 20% of the global Jewish population are Semites (ben shel shem); for example, Middle Eastern Mizrahi Jews. Iwrith, Arabic, and Maltese are considered Semite tongues.

The official narrative might be a construct, since this is one of the rather often-abused terms in political debate, disconnected from its precise meaning. These two German terms were wrongfully associated for propaganda purposes from the very beginning, ever since the invention of the term. This likely happened on purpose, as the later following-on mass migration to Palestine might suggest — and a Palästinaamt existed in several countries, which is nowadays called the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (that is, BAMF in German).

There are also white European Jews (in Europe), who claim to be "Semites". While I used to be "Oleh" (a non-Jewish Israeli) for several years and in Israel, nobody understands people of eg. German descent as "Semites" (since that term is already being reserved for a whole other ethnicity) — and not in a religious way, the way this is done in European politics. Rather, it is that some Semites are jealous of the perfect pronunciation of Iwrith, which they’ve said only Germans have.

Due to these two different interpretations, the anti- prefix can lead to two different meanings.

Concerning the current usage (or abuse), even former Israeli government officials share my understanding. Please just see for yourself: Israel’s First Lady of Human Rights: A Conversation with Shulamit Aloni. When telling the truth about it, rest assured that instantly some paid "Hasbara" troll will call it "lies".

  • It's not correct to say "Judenhass" refers to the Jewish religeon, since Jews are also a race, and conversion to Catholicism was not enough to deflect the hatred. Nor is it correct to say it is "more often hatred against rich people" since being poor was no protection either.
    – Ben
    Dec 3, 2019 at 10:47
  • @Ben in the German culture, where these terms come from, it can have these both meanings, without judging if these are "correct". I'd merely wanted to point out the the term Semite might only apply to a minority and not a majority of all Jewish people, which is why it became a slightly confusing buzzword. You might find more information about the other side in the blau/weiss archives, or PLO+propaganda+posters is also an interesting query term. Dec 3, 2019 at 13:44
  • And for example, Einstein's birth certificate stated something alike ~ "of Israelite believe" and not "Jewish" - therefore the term Judenhass was already inaccurate, before it had been replaced with the quite over-generalizing, importantly Latin sounding, term Antisemitismus. When I read the term anti, I always wonder anti what exactly, and there is more than one interpretation of what "Semitic" or "Jewish" actually means. Dec 3, 2019 at 13:52
  • In those comments you appear to be accept that your answer is wrong, since if "can have these both meanings" then it's not correct to say "one is against the religion". . . . In any case that is a discussion of German language and usage so is off-topic on English Language and Usage.
    – Ben
    Dec 3, 2019 at 14:09
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    What you have written here is all the following: It doesn't answer the question, it's factually incorrect, and it's off-topic.
    – Ben
    Dec 3, 2019 at 14:19

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