Anti-Semite! (This is a language post.)


If you’re at all interested in language, or in English, then you already know that words change meaning. And not only do they change meaning, but sometimes they’re coined to mean something other than what you might expect. For example, if someone calls you a “mouth-breather,” then you should know that you’re being insulted. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but someone thinks that you’re stupid.

Now, there are probably extremely bright people who momentarily, routinely, or permanently breathe through their mouths. But that makes no difference, because “mouth-breather” doesn’t mean, “a person who is breathing through the mouth.” It means, “a stupid person.”

It would be silly to say that people who use that insult are using it wrong. Or to say that they’re confused about the meaning of mouth, breather, or the myriad ways that a person can come to breath through the mouth. It was coined to mean “stupid,” and it’s meant “stupid” ever since.

Let’s get to the point

Which, of course, brings us to Israel. Ok, not exactly, but there’s a silly bit of nonsense that is cropping up more and more now that Israel is more and more in the news. Today I read the following comment about the word anti-Semitic:

Could we get the terminology right? “Semitic” has two common definitions (1- A language group in the Afro-Asiatic language family that includes Hebrew and Arabic. 2- description of Middle East peoples that trace their origin from the biblical Noah and his son Shem; these include Jews and Arabs.). So “anti-Semitism” should properly refer more to anti-Arabism than to anti-Jewishness, as only about 20% of Jews are of Semitic origins while nearly all Palestinians would be Semites.

This specious reasoning is usually followed by some kind of accusation that Jews have somehow co-opted the term and stolen it from the proper Semitic peoples. But “anti-Semite” was popularized┬áby a guy who was against Jews; he coined it to mean people who are against Jews, and it’s meant the same thing ever since. So they should blame him.

In short, it’s a bad idea to break apart a word and then assume that it means the sum of its parts. Go tell people to stop doing it!

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