Friday, August 04, 2006

Father Shem

Has anybody ever noticed a word that means something that they don't think it should mean?

I mean, in any language you have words that are variations of each other, and they have definitions that deal with the same subject or object. For example, the word "typical" means "regular" or "usual", the word "atypical" means "irregular" or "unusual", "typically" is an adverb meaning "usually" or "normally", "type" is a noun meaning "example" or "of a particular group", etc. These relationships between words with a common root make sense and follow a pattern similar to other words.
So here is what I don't understand. The following are entries from from Merriam-Webster.com (Please excuse the hard to read formatting.)

Main Entry: Sem·ite
Pronunciation: 'se-"mIt, especially British 'sE-"mIt
Function: noun
Etymology: French sémite, from Semitic Shem, from Late Latin, from Greek SEm, from Hebrew ShEm
1 a : a member of any of a number of peoples of ancient southwestern Asia including the Akkadians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs b : a descendant of these peoples
2 : a member of a modern people speaking a Semitic language

Main Entry: Se·mit·ic
Pronunciation: s&-'mi-tik also -'me-
Function: adjective
Etymology: German semitisch, from Semit, Semite Semite, probably from New Latin Semita, from Late Latin Semitic Shem
1 : of, relating to, or constituting a subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic language family that includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Amharic
2 : of, relating to, or characteristic of the Semites
3 : JEWISH

Main Entry: an·ti-Sem·i·tism
Pronunciation: "an-tE-'se-m&-"ti-z&m, "an-"tI-
Function: noun
: hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group
- an·ti-Se·mit·ic /-s&-'mi-tik/ adjective
- an·ti-Sem·ite /-'se-"mIt/ noun

You'll notice that even though the Hebrews are one people of many included in the term Semite, the word "anti-Semitic" seems to mean "anti-Jewish". That doesn't make sense. It's like saying that "anti-American" means you don't like Californians. The logical meaning for "anti-Semitic" is "against Semites" (including not just Jews, but all Hebrews, Arabs and other Semitic peoples). That kind of makes the thought of Ahmadinejad being anti-Semitic comical.
When people use the word "anti-Semitic" I really do think of being "against Semites", but that's not what they mean. So should I just give up, even though I think I'm right and everyone else is wrong? Am I making the classic blunder of getting too caught up in semantics?

7 comments:

Cabeza said...

If THAT's what that means, then yes, I am anti-American.

Just kidding.

Why yes, Jon, you are making the classic blunder of nearly all philosophers by getting too caught-up in semantics (or semitics, whatever). Here's the basic problem with your analysis: When dictionaries are written, they not only take into account etymology/root meanings of words. While that is key, almost as important is word usage. Dictionary writers peruse literature, both classic and modern, in order to determine a word's definition based on how it is commonly used. Once they establish a pattern and can formulate a definition based on usage, that definition sticks, at least as one of the usages under the entry in the dictionary. That's why the Oxford English Dictionary includes a literary quotation with most of its entries.

Speaking of quotation, you yourself once taught me this lesson using this particular word. I gave a short rant about the misuse of the word "quote," saying it was a verb while the noun form is properly "quotation." You pointed out that while that may be, common usage makes "quote" into a noun. Sure enough, Merriam-Webster's website includes entries on "quote" as both a verb and a noun. The funny thing? The noun definition simply has a hyperlinked capitalized "QUOTATION" as the definition. The hyperlink takes you to the entry for the real noun form.

So what this overlong comment is trying to say is: somewhere in the past somebody decided to use the word "anti-semitic" to describe Jewish defamation, it caught on and stuck, and the Arabs, Akkadians, and Phoenicians were left high and dry. Having served in Phoenix, I can tell you that they're quite upset about it down there.

-Jared

Nick said...

I thought the classic blunder was getting into a land war in Asia

Golfing pirate 14 said...

Jon, this post cracked me up, because it is so you. Jared, your story about Jon explaining common usage making quote a noun quite surprises me. Jon seems more like the type to rant right along with you. I though Jon HATED common usage words making it into the dictionary. Ask Jon sometime how he feels about the work "lite" Actually, you guys probably already know. Jared is right here. Whether it should or not, anti-Semitic refers specifically to being against Jews. By the way, since when did the English language make sense? There are parts of it that do, but something we inherit from German, is that sometimes there are more exceptions to rules than instances of them. And from French, comes the fact that English is mostly anti-phonetic.

JonnyF said...

I know what it means. My point is that it shouldn't. Just like I know "quote" used as a noun really means "quotation".
In both cases the word is superfluous with it's common usage meaning. (You don't need the noun "quote" if you can just say "quotation" and you don't need the word "anti-Semitic" when you can just say "anti-Jewish".) It is redundant and therefore, "it is confusion" (to quote the Bible, though that's not exactly what Moses was referring to). In the case of "anti-Semitic", the redundancy is made worse by the fact it's a word that should (if it followed normal prefix rules) mean one thing but instead means something else that already has a word to express it.
Now I'm confusing myself again. Oh well.
Anyway, the English language often does make some sort of sense even though it is kind of a hodgepodge of other languages. (I just wanted to say hodgepodge, it's a fun word.) One example is the prefix "anti" which modifies words in a usually very predictable way.
One more thing I'll say: If common usage is really so all important, then why can't we just start using the word to mean what we (or I) think it should mean? I guess it just doesn't work that way.
I guess I just want people to say, "You're right, Jon that doesn't make sense." I'm not looking for recruits in a campaign to rebell against the language.

Nick said...

I hate the "word" "mart". As in mini-mart. Is adding in -ket instead of the -t just too much trouble?

And speaking of superfluous use of quotation marks, Jenny and I saw a bad one a few days ago at the grocery store in Edmonds (washington). A sign was advertising fresh, half price shrimp on "wednesday".

The Shark said...

John, you could recruit me in any sort of campaign and I'd follow you anywhere!

-The Shark

erin said...

I'd go, too.

Here where I live I wish someone would hire a copy editor any time they wanted to put up a sign (the someone, not the editor). Almost every recommendation or slogan or convincer line is put into quotation marks. For example (these are right out of the phone book, since that's handier than the signage right now): "The World's finest, safest doors" (they capitalized the W, not me) or "22 Years Experience" or "For Information Call" or "Visit Our Showroom" or (I think this one's my favorite) "See Our Residential Ad Under Garage Doors" in huge bold print. I know I have gone through phases where I either capitalize or quotationalize (usage, folks, usage) everything, but it always kind of bugs me when I see slogans treated as direct quotations. I don't lose sleep over it, but it kind of bugs me. One other misappropriation of punctuation that is a cause of my frustration is the misuse of apostrophes. For example, there is a self-serve gas station in my town that is all automated but it has vending machines inside. On the outside there is a huge sign that says "Snack's Inside." It does drive one crazy, but I also find that I feel superior when I see it, as though I am the only one in town who knows how to use an apostrophe...which is probably not true. ;) (It sure will be embarrassing to find all my typos and mispelled words after I publish this.)