Putting the “It” Back in “Anti-Semitism”

With the recent upsurge in anti-Jewish speech and acts there has been a great increase in the use of the words “anti-Semite” and “anti-Semitism” in broadcast news. These terms have long been widely used in as a polite synonym for "anti-Jewish," perhaps somewhat influenced by nervousness about the word “Jew” which I discuss in my Common Errors entry on that word.

But I have noticed that many pronounce the fourth syllable in “anti-Semitism” as if it were spelled “met,” with a distinctly soft “E” sound, even though “antisemite” should remind us that it should sound more like “mitt.”

“Semitic” as a term designating certain people and languages has an interesting history. It originated in the 19th century as a term to designate a group of Middle Eastern languages including Hebrew, Aramæan, Arabic, Ethiopic, and ancient Assyrian. The name was derived from the name of Noah’s eldest son Shem, considered in Jewish tradition to be the ancestor of the Hebrews, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Lydians, other related groups called “Ishmaelite,” after Shem’s eldest son Ishmael.

Muslims consider the Arabs to be descendants of Ishmael and therefore qualified to claim the term “semite” as well. Some have argued that the term “anti-Semite” should therefore apply also to prejudice against Muslims. This is a bit of a stretch since most Muslims are not Arabs, and neither group has traditionally identified itself with the term “Semitic.”

Currently there is also a heated debate about the use of the term “anti-Semitic” to designate attitudes and speech which oppose the politics of the state of Israel. This is a political debate, not really a linguistic one, abundantly explored elsewhere.

For well over a century the word “Semitic” has most commonly been used as a synonym for “Jewish” and “anti-Semitic,” and those who argue that it should be extended to Muslims may be suspected of harboring anti-Semitic attitudes.

I don’t expect broadcasters to pay any attention to the distinction I’m making here, but it would be nice if more of them would put the “it” back in “anti-Semitism.”

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