Sue Blackwell and Willem Meijs: Loaded words: Evolving interpretations of ‘anti-semitic’ and ‘anti-semitism’ [1] in dictionary definitions and in public discourse [2]

Sue Blackwell and Willem Meijs have published a paper:


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.

1. Introduction

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.

the whole paper is downloadable here.

In 2006 Sue Blackwell showed how rife antisemitic ways of thinking were in the Palestine Solidarity movement.

In 2007 Sue Blackwell threatened to sue Engage for saying that she campaigned “to exclude Israeli academics from UK campuses”.

Here is a piece about Sue Blackwell’s rather one-sided understanding of Equality Impact Assessments.

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.

Here is a piece from 2005 which traces the relationships between Sue Blackwell’s antizionism and more openly antisemitic currents within the Palestine Solidarity movement.

27 Responses to “Sue Blackwell and Willem Meijs: Loaded words: Evolving interpretations of ‘anti-semitic’ and ‘anti-semitism’ [1] in dictionary definitions and in public discourse [2]”

  1. modernity Says:

    “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’. “

    I am not sure what particular academic discipline that Sue Blackwell and Willem Meijs” hold expertise in, but basic history does seen to be one of them.

    Three points:

    1. As far as I know (and I am most willing to be corrected by the academics here), Semite was originally a linguistical classification and not as stated in the above “a broad ethnic category that included both Arabs and Jews”.

    2. I wish they would also dispense with the hyphen.

    That is, unless Dr. Blackwell & Dr. Meijs will make an effort to explain what, in their view, “semitism” is?

    3. Dr. Blackwell & Dr. Meijs might have tried to clarify the origins of the word, antisemitism as it is not originally an English word, etc etc

    Overall, I would give it 3/10, needs improved references, some intellectual foundation and historical context, less cheap and easy statistical analysis.

  2. Dave Rich Says:

    This is their conclusion:

    Given the amount of linguistic lobbying which has become apparent from our analysis of the World-Wide Web, lexicographers would be well advised to exercise extreme caution before relying on corpus data in formulating their definitions of contentious words. Organisations and individuals with the resources and know-how to propagate the definitions they favour may actually succeed in skewing the statistics picked up by software such as WebCorp.

    I think this means that Zionists now control the dictionaries too, and the internet. Or perhaps, that their research did not find the results they were hoping for.

  3. modernity Says:

    A few further points, after skimming that shoddy paper.

    1. The paper provides no historical context towards the origins of the word antisemitism, yet goes into detail concerning “Zionism”.

    2.The paper casually attributes the origins of the expression “new antisemitism” then quickly utilises Norman G Finkelstein to dismiss it.

    3. The references (all 19 of them) contained no linkage to specialist academic works on antisemitism, a major omission.

  4. conchovor Says:

    This is part of her conclusion, which illuminates the recent UCU NEC motion somewhat:

    ‘Who would have guessed, given the high-profile allegations of Mearsheimer and Walt (2006) about the power of the “Israel lobby” to influence US politics, that the word Israel would hardly feature at all in the collocations of antisemitism in our US data but would repeatedly appear near the top of the charts in our British web corpus? This striking difference would seem to be attributable to the disproportionate influence of the EUMC’s Working Definition and its subsequent adoption by the All-Party Parliamentary Group. A number of pressure groups have campaigned – with some success –for this particular definition, which blurs the distinction between anti-zionism and anti-semitism, to be widely accepted and implemented in the EU and beyond, with potentially far-reaching social and even legal implications.’

    Surely another explanation could be that criticism and ‘criticism’ of Israel is far more severe in the UK than the US, and that British Jews feel far more embattled thereby.

    Is this the fault of the EUMC? Hardly.

  5. conchovor Says:

    What Sue Blackwell said of Mona Baker’s firing a former chairwoman of Israeli Amnesty International, because she was an Israeli:

    “I respect her right to draw her own line where her conscience tells her to, and I think the witch-hunt against her is disgusting.”

  6. conchovor Says:

    Guys, you do realise that the purpose of this paper was to show how problematical was the current Meriam-Webster’s definition of antisemitism as anti-Zionism, without qualification, as Fisk noted in 2004.

    Webster claimed they were reflecting actual language usage. Blackwell’s study prima facie refutes this. I think she has a point.

    • modernityblog Says:


      “the purpose of this paper was to show how problematical was the current Meriam-Webster’s definition of antisemitism as anti-Zionism, without qualification “

      I am tempted to suggest the purpose of this paper was a bit of axe grinding by its authors, but let us be charitable for a moment and suppose what you say to be the case.

      The one difficulty is the assumption that the ‘Bank of English is not problematic as a source, in this instance.

      But as the authors say “most of the constituent texts originated after 1990.” it is limited in any meaningful historical context, particularly when the paper touches on the early 1970s.

      I did not see (and I’ll be corrected) any effort by the authors to suggest that their sources may be less than perfect or have built-in bias (if a large part of the data is after the 1990, then that would count as a historical bias towards more modern usage of these words).

      Again, it is my impression that any scholarly paper dealing with large scale statistical analysis or the interrogation of bulk data would endeavour to qualify the relevance of the source material and discuss any possible problems that might relate to it, but not so in this paper.

      • conchovor Says:

        ‘ (if a large part of the data is after the 1990, then that would count as a historical bias towards more modern usage of these words).’

        Webster claimed its definition reflected actual usage. Blackwell took issue, since more modern usage is exactly what concerns her.

        • conchovor Says:

          This might be more Sarah A B’s line, so would be interested to hear her view.

      • modernityblog Says:

        “Blackwell took issue, since more modern usage is exactly what concerns her.”

        But is it?

        It seems apparent that the authors have avoided providing a wider historical context, because it would naturally weaken their arguments. Yet when they come to define Zionism they give a broader background, when they come to define new antisemitism they identify a specific point in time when it came about and then use Finkelstein to disparage it.

        So from a methodological point of view they are not consistent.

        It seems extremely difficult to understand the modern context of anything without a dose of history, and the authors of this paper play fast and loose how they treat words (not providing a context, then going on about it in terms of “Zionism”, and making cavalier usage of dates without consistency).

        It hard to argue modern usage if you can’t provide any lineage or context to past usage, and in terms of that the Bank of English is biased as the paper lays out towards the 1990s and later.

        These are but a few criticisms, this paper is problematic in so many ways.

  7. Thomas Venner Says:

    To be honest, my first thoughts upon seeing this article were to do with how tacky that awful Palestinian flag outfit looks. Considering the fact that Palestinian textile producers and tailors have a (well-earned, from what I can tell) reputation for skill and quality, wearing that outfit seems a bit like spitting in their faces. Then again, I could go on a very long rant indeed about the number of inadvertent insults that so-called “supporters” of the Palestinians have given through their complete lack of cultural understanding (sitting with the soles of your feet pointing at people, etc.).

    • Bill Says:

      (Not one but two annoying images this morning. Blackwell looking unprofessional, and a resigning UCU member being able to use a photo from his college days on his department web page.)

      I’m puzzled though about the article. Ok, I’m “puzzled” as to why there is no reference to the Marr, the Antisemitism League, etc, who nurtured the term to give jew-hating an intellectual edge. They report that antisemitism pops in in the 1880s (and yup, that’s the right time for it) but no examination as to why it semite got an anti. If they want to do a major word search with greps and FLOPs to harvest target words, fine though I am not sure why it makes a least publishable unit (a real word unfunny parody of the NCSE gag paper “Morphology of Steve?”) but as a scholarly work discussing antisemitism, I’d say that that’s a major flaw in the background material — Unless of you wish to discuss “Antisemitism-without-Antisemites” but why? For me I s’spect that this is a lot of effort for just more special pleading and to discount and cry foul in its use.

      • Bill Says:

        (And from MoS, I think this quote is a bit ironic)

        “We performed this research for the best of all reasons: we discovered that we had lots of data. No scientist can resist the opportunity to analyze data, regardless of where that data came from or why it was gathered.” (emph mine)

        Scott, E.C., et al., “The Morphology of Steve.” Annals of Improbably Research, 10(4), 25-29.

  8. comment is not free Says:

    Oh, come on. I know it’s not easy for “Zionists” to be honest – at least according to the “stories” Kuper has heard and disseminates, but come on – this paper is complete and utter bollocks from beginning to end.

    My guess is Blackwell and Meijs are short on the REF outputs and on their need to prove “impact” so they came up with this little gem.

    If any further evidence is needed on how the REF is ruining standards of research at British universities, then look no further. At least that makes it useful in one sense.

  9. Words and their meaning Says:

    2. gen. An organized, officially tolerated, attack on any community or group. (Oxford English Dictionary)

    I can’t think of a better way to describe what is going on in UCU at the moment.

  10. Critique Says:

    Isn’t the assumption of the paper that, linguistically “anti-Semitism” has come to include “anti-zionism”, and that such linguistic “inclusion” is illegitimate since it is impossible for the (social, political and cultural) realities that the words are said to capture to be allied in such a way?

    A few points,

    1. The paper assumes a strict demarcation between anti-Semitism and anti-zionism, as if the latter can never be antisemitic and so should be a priori excluded from any definition of “anti-Semitism”.

    2. That the paper assumes a fixed meaning to the word, “anti-Semitism” that denies any relationship between language and the shifting social, political and cultural phenomena that the word is said to articulate; that from the perspective of the paper both words and (social) world are denied any development and so are presented as fixed and immutable.

    3.As a consequence of this positivist account of language and world, the authors only explanation for change available to them can only be conspiratorial (“Organisations and individuals with the resources and know-how to propagate the definitions they favour.”) since there is no other means within their methodology to account for either linguistic or social change.

    4. Far from offering a critique of the phenomenon of contemporary antisemitism, the paper’s starting point, methodology and conclusion remains trapped within it. As a consequence, the paper cannot but repeat contemporary antisemitism fundamental assumptions and worldview; that anti-Zionism can never be antisemitism;that those who say that it can or, even may be in certain contexts and situations, may be brought together are not just wrong, but, through their “organisations and individuals with the resources and know-how” are in a position “to propagate the definitions they favour”.

    In short, the paper represents what many see as the somewhat plausible view that, in some situations and in some contexts, anti-ZIonism may well bleed into anti-Semitism, as little more than a knowing fraud perpetrated by the Zionist few not only against their “opponents” ( all critics of Israel, no matter in what terms that criticism is expressed) but also against reality itself.

    The paper is, in reality, nothing more than old (sour) wine in (relatively) new bottles.

  11. Evan Says:

    Wow. If I had a dollar for every time I witnessed someone bringing up antisemitism only to be shouted down with “Arabs are Semites too”, “Arabs are Semites, most Israelis/Jews are Europeans” or “The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Semite” as…”, I’d be relatively well-off.

  12. modernityblog Says:

    I’m going to ask what might appear a silly question to academics, but it is not apparent to me, as a non-academic:

    Has the paper been through any form of peer review yet, to get to this stage of publication?

  13. Dave Rich Says:

    One the one hand, they have found a couple of examples of people using antisemitism in a way that includes prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, both seemingly from pro-Palestinian activists. They accept this as evidence that language can change through usage.

    However, when they note at pro-Israel activists use antisemitism in a way that includes anti-Zionists, they reject this as a legitimate way for language to change.

    They really want it both ways, it’s so transparent.

  14. Ex-UCU Says:


    If I many sum up, you seem to be saying that,

    Antisemitism can never include antizionism in practice.
    And, because of that,
    Linguistically the two terms are and can only be (dishonestly) brought together by “the Lobby” by the machinations of the Lobby.
    (So, Jews rule, not just the world, but the virtual world as well!).

    This paper proves yet again Arednt’s observation that such pseudo-nonsense has always been the province of “charlatans and crackpots”.

    Just as practical antisemitism has always been a parody of real politics, so theoretical antisemitism is a parody of real thought.

    On a different but related level, one need only point to incidents noted by Engage (Hammond, Cushman, Wallis, Hamas charter, President of Iran, as well as the work of Walt and Mearsheimer, most of Counterpunch and the list goes on) to show how wrong Blackwell is theoretically and empirically.

    I am not sure if this is irony or coincidence, but in a review by fellow-BDS obsessive Steven Rose in this week’s THES, hecomments that the book he is reviewing ut is “strong on data and weak on theory” (or some such). Seems an apt comment in the present context too.

  15. Critique Says:

    Dave Rich and Modernity,
    Regardless of peer review (which is not without its problems) and regardless of whether it makes any sense at all, this paper will be recycled again and again and again.
    As you have noted, it is rubbish built on rubbish.
    It is nothing more than poop based on poop.
    Look at its fundaments,
    A complete bogus account of the meaning of “semitism”.
    An uncritical assumption of the “Israel Lobby” thesis.
    A complete paucity of relevant sources, (one work on antisemitism (Finkelstien’s).

    Despite all of this, there is little doubt that this work will find its place in the cannon of academic “anti-Zionism”.

  16. Absolute Observer Says:

    I have a feeling that we are all missing the point.

    The idea that the UCU debate is about the meaning or definition of antisemitism is wrong.

    It is actually about the way Jews lie and finding a way to counter this malicious Jewish tendency.

    Look at the UCU motion.
    It rests upon the idea that UCU “believes” that Jews lie in bringing forward accusations of antisemitism as a means to silence debate.

    Understood in this light, only a definition of antisemitism which which would exclude the libel that Jews lie would satisfy the UCU.

    They are searching for a definition of antisemitism that is itself antisemitic.

    Enter Blackwell’s paper.

    • Bill Says:

      As they have several mentions of EUMC in the paper, I think the motivation, intent and broader implications of the paper are obvious. The goal is to erode the credibility of the EUMC working definitions — which flies when any other demographic is plugged into it. And this dishonest piece of “scholarship” is to provide justification for it. Good luck with the legal side of that mine field you jumped into, Sue.

      • Bill Says:

        Or as her soulmate in the 20s said, when he tried to cap the number of Jews in Harvard because, “Jews Cheat.” When reminded that others cheat too, his response was, “Don’t change the subject. We’re talking about Jews.”

        And now, Jews and only jews broadly file false discrimination and harassment claims. Jews Lie. What college did all these people go to in order to get that dumb.

  17. Bill Says:

    Also has anyone in the UK been hearing a nagging scraping sound coming somewhere from the west? That grinding sound you hear is the bottom of the barrel that is the SFO circumcision ban referendum being scraped. They now have a comic book out with unquestionable 100% bonafide antisemetic imagery that looks like it belongs in Der Stürmer complete with an Aryan looking superhero. Now antisemitism not only can piggyback the Israel/Palestine conflict, and data mining for red-flag/dog-whistle language, it now can be used “for the Children.” Outstanding.

  18. Absolute Observer Says:

    I assume you are referring to this……

    Recall also that there is an attack on Kosher and Halal meat going on in the EU also.

    And adding this to the pogrom in UCU and we can see that Jews have never had it so good!!

    Can you think what life would be like if we didn’t have such a powerful and omnipotent Lobby? Then Jews would really have to worry!

  19. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Late, I’m afraid, no access to a computer for a day or two: It strikes me that while we might expect the response we got from Robert Fisk to the dictionary definition – he is, after all, a journalist, and, for once, this is not an attack on Fisk but a comment on how journalists, often perforce, work – however, the matter of the way the Blackwell/Meijs paper is put together is far more worrying. To say the least, it is far from scholarly. They take a one-sentence definition from a dictionary, the reaction to it by a journalist (see comment on journalists just above) and then proceed to build a rather dodgy edifice on that.

    For a start, no hard-copy dictionary would satisfy itself with a one-line definition of a word, and certainly not with a word as contentious as “antisemitism” (with or without a hyphen) – see only the argument between certain of us here and Philip Blue over the meaning of the word “polemic”. As self-proclaimed scholars (and they are both employed by universities), this is not good enough. As has been pointed out, given the nature of the subject matter, one would expect rather more references (or at least, if no more references, a bibliography) and certainly a history of the conventional understanding of the term “antisemitism” – and, yes, including Wilhelm Marr even if they were attempting to redefine the term.

    There is also the question of the journal in question: is it actually an academic journal (the country of publication is irrelevant here)? If so, are articles peer-reviewed? If not, and the article is contentious in political (_not_ academic) terms, is there something about the country of publication?(And I’m not raising aspersions about Finland here, either)?

    Just thought I’d ask those last few questions.

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