Some words are loaded with connotative associations that make them highly sensitive elements in public discourse, especially political and legal discourse. This is certainly the case with the words anti-semitic and anti-semitism.
While Semites and semitic were originally used to refer to a broad ethnic category that included both Arabs and Jews, their derivatives anti-semitic and anti-semitism came to be applied, from first use, almost exclusively to people of Jewish ethnicity or religion, meaning roughly ‘hatred of / hostility towards Jews’. In some quarters over the past few decades there has been a further semantic shift, involving an extension of the meaning of anti-semitism to include criticism of, or hostility towards, the state of Israel. This paper traces these semantic shifts both in evolving dictionary definitions and in public discourse as evidenced in the Bank of English and the World-Wide Web.
More recently still, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) devoted some emphasis in its 2004 report to the lack of a common definition of anti-semitism, and promptly offered one. The resulting “EUMC Working definition” has been taken up throughout the EU: for instance in the British Parliament through the report of its All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism (September 2006). This did not volunteer a definition of its own but concluded: “We recommend that the EUMC Working Definition of antisemitism is adopted and promoted by the Government and law enforcement agencies.”
Our study revealed that the terms semite, anti-semitic and anti-semitism are the focus of much linguistic contention, particularly in the UK. We found that collocational patterns in data culled from the World-Wide Web fluctuated widely from one year to another: disturbingly, this appeared to be largely due to the influence of pressure groups and documents in the public eye at the time. We conclude by drawing some salutary lessons for linguists and lexicographers.
Our starting point for this paper is an article by the campaigning journalist Robert Fisk, published in The Independent newspaper in April 2004. In it he berates Webster’s Third New International Dictionary for defining anti-Semitism as “opposition to Zionism: sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel”. Fisk goes on to quote “the pitiful response of the Webster’s official publicist, Mr. Arthur Bicknell, who was asked to account for this grotesque definition”:
‘Our job’, he responded, ‘is to accurately reflect English as it is actually being used. We don’t make judgement calls; we’re not political.’ Even more hysterically funny and revolting, he says that the dictionary’s editors tabulate ‘citational evidence’ about anti-Semitism published in ‘carefully written prose-like books and magazines.’ Preposterous as it is, this Janus-like remark is worthy of the hollowest of laughs. (Fisk 2004)
In this paper we will attempt to provide context to the conflicting claims by Fisk and Bicknell by charting the semantic shifts which have taken place in the use of anti-semitism, zionism and related words. We will examine the changing definitions in the most influential British and American dictionaries over the last century, and compare them with the use of the terms in current British and American English as found in newspaper texts in a general corpus and pages from online newspapers on the World-Wide Web.
This study bears similarities with the task which Baker et al. (2008) undertook: trying to trace and interpret the evolving use of certain ‘loaded words’ over time in the light of developments in ‘the real world’, utilising linguistic evidence as found in textual sources from relevant time-frames. Our analysis has been guided by Fairclough’s Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) (Fairclough 1995) and Critical Language Study (CLS) (Fairclough 1995, 2001). We have attempted to provide a “description” (Fairclough 2001: 21) of the linguistic characteristics of our chosen texts, using corpus linguistics methodology; an “interpretation” (ibid.) of the processes by which they are produced and interpreted; and also an “explanation” (Fairclough 2001: 22) of the wider social processes within which the semantic space of words like anti-semitism and anti-zionism is fought over.
In 2005 Sue Blackwell turned on LabourStart, a website which carries news about trade union struggles around the world, claiming that it was “Zionist” and so shouldn’t be considered to be part of the legitimate labour movement.