A recently surfaced letter penned by James Murray, the Oxford English Dictionary’s founding editor, sheds new light on “anti-Semite” in the English language. The letter has been placed online for the first time by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

“Anti-Semite” and related words do not have their own entries in the original edition of the OED, the massive project which sought to publish a comprehensive lexicon of the entire English language.

Murray became the founding editor of the OED in 1879.

The reasons for the word’s exclusion are elaborated by Murray in the letter, which he wrote on July 5, 1900 to Claude Montefiore, an anti-Zionist and scholar and great-nephew of pro-Zionist financier Moses Montefiore.

Besides the fact that “the material for anti- words was so enormous that much violence had to be employed” to get them all in, Murray wrote:

Anti-semite 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 anti-semite a main word, and add ‘hence anti-semitic, anti-semitism.’ …

 

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 anti-semitism 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!

Pages 2-3 of Oxford English Dictionary editor James Murray’s letter on July 5, 1900, to Claude Montefiore. Credit: Abraham Schwadron Collection/National Library of Israel.

In a post-script, Murray notes that according to his German assistant, more prevalent “English newspaper coinages” at the time included “Anti-boer, anti-foreign, anti-Japan, anti-imperialistic, anti-expansion, anti-silver,” clarifying that “Anti-semitic has however a flavor of the professor about it, not of the penny-a-liner, & looks like the perpetration of some Viennese pundit. The man in the street would have said Anti-Jewish.”

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.

“The Oxford University Press was unable to locate Montefiore’s original letter to Murray,” said expert archivist Rachel Misrati, who catalogued the letter as part of the initiative and has written extensively on NLI archival materials. “Nonetheless, we can see from the context that Montefiore was apparently surprised by the fact that ‘anti-Semitism’ seemed to be conspicuously absent from the dictionary intended to be the English language’s definitive authority.”

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