Revealed: Why ‘Antisemite’ was omitted from original Oxford English Dictionary
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Revealed: Why ‘Antisemite’ was omitted from original Oxford English Dictionary

Letter from 1900 by editor James Murray, recently found at the National Library of Israel, claimed the term was just a 'passing trend'

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Page 2 and 3 of a letter sent by former OED editor James Murray, outlining why 'antisemite' was omitted
Page 2 and 3 of a letter sent by former OED editor James Murray, outlining why 'antisemite' was omitted

For the first time in 120 years, scholars are able to see on-line the real reason that “antisemite” and its related words, “antisemitic” and “antisemitism” are not in the original Oxford English Dictionary.

It transpires that the founding editor, James Murray, and his team of compilers for the massive 1879 work, did not believe that anti-Jewish prejudice was more than a passing trend. By 1900, Murray regretted the decision to leave the definition out — and declared: “Would that antisemitism had had no more than a fleeting interest! The closing years of the 19th century have shown, alas! that much of Christianity is only a temporary whitewash over brutal savagery”.

Murray’s sentiments were expressed in a newly-surfaced letter which he wrote in July 1900 to Claude Montefiore, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism in Britain. The letter, now placed on-line by the National Library of Israel, is believed to be Murray’s reply to a letter from Montefiore, querying the exclusion of the words. The NLI archivist, Rachel Misrati, says that the Oxford University Press has not been able to find Montefiore’s original letter to Murray, but it is clear from the context how the correspondence began.

In his letter, Murray explains that besides the fact that “the material for ‘anti’ words was so enormous that much violence had to be employed” to get them all in to the Dictionary, there was an additional problem. 

Page 1 of a letter sent by former OED editor James Murray, outlining why ‘antisemite’ was omitted

The words “antisemitism” and related terms “were then probably very new in English use, and not thought likely to be more than passing nonce-words, and hence they did not receive treatment in a separate article. Probably if we had to do that post now, we should have to make antisemite a main word, and add ‘hence antisemitic, antisemitism’…”  A “nonce” word was a word or expression coined for one specific occasion.

Murray adds: “Would that antisemitism had had no more than a fleeting interest! It is unutterably saddening to one like myself who remembers 1848 and the high hopes we had in the 1850s that we had left ignorance, superstition, and brute force behind us, and that the 19th century was to usher in the reign of righteousness. How the devil must have chuckled at our fond and foolish dream!”

Antisemite and its family were then probably very new in English use, and not thought likely to be more than passing nonce-words, & hence they did not receive treatment in a separate article. Probably if we had to do that post now, we should have to make antisemite a main word, and add “hence antisemitic, antisemitism.”…

You will see that Anti-slavery, which was, then at least, a much more important word, is also treated among the Anti- combination… Would that antisemitism had had no more than a fleeting interest! The closing years of the 19th c. have shown, alas! that much of Christianity is only a temporary whitewash over brutal savagery. It is unutterably sadding to one like myself who remembers ’48 and the high hopes we had in the fifties that we had left ignorance, superstition[?], and brute force behind us, and that the 19th c. was to usher in the reign of righteousness. How the devil must have chuckled at our fond & foolish dream!

In a postscript, Murray notes that according to his assistant, “the man in the street would have said anti-Jewish,” rather than “anti-semitic”.

Oddly, however, the term “semitism” does appear in the first edition of the OED, along with the note that “in recent use,” it had already come to be associated with “Jewish ideas or Jewish influence in policy and society”.

Murray’s letter came to light as part of a major National Library of Israel initiative, supported by the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in the NLI archives, which include personal papers, photographs, and documents from many of modern history’s most prominent cultural figures.

Page 4 of a letter sent by former OED editor James Murray, outlining why ‘antisemite’ was omitted

 

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