Why Does Everyone Pronounce ‘Anti-Semitic’ Wrong?
“I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” Donald Trump said in his inaugural solo news conference as President of the United States, way back in 2017. Certain comments he’s made since then have shown there are more than a few things wrong with that statement, but here’s what’s particularly curious to me: why does he pronounce the word Semitic like that? “Si-met-ic.” It’s no secret that English phonetics can work in mysterious ways, but in this case, the pronunciation seems fairly cut and dry. /sᵻˈmɪtɪk/, the pronunciation suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary, more or less matches the way the word is actually spelled. So why does it sound like Trump is jumbling the first and second vowels around?
He’s not the only culprit. As anti-Semitism is an unfortunately commonplace topic of discussion in the media today, there are plenty of other examples of newscasters (from Chris Cuomo to Sean Hannity) and political pundits (from Bill Maher to Ben Shapiro) using this alternative pronunciation. The phenomenon seems largely American, though not exclusively—journalists from the UK (for Euronews), Canada (for CBC News), and Australia (for ABC News) provide instances in other Englishes. It’s so widespread that you, dear reader, may indeed say it this way, too.
The word Semitic entered English in the late 18th century, modelled on the German term semitisch and used by philologists to describe the language family to which Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and others belong. It later took on the meaning of “Jewish” with the addition of the prefix anti-, first used in 1851 by the British historian Thomas Carlyle, according to the OED. Almost thirty years later, however, it appeared in a New York Times article between quotation marks, suggesting that it was still unfamiliar to most audiences of the time:
In the month of September last, a few Berliners […] got up a club — the ‘Anti-Semitic’ — for the purpose of provoking an agitation against the Jews.
1880 was the year in which the German political writer Heinrich von Treitschke published an essay proclaiming that the differences between Christians and Jews were irreconcilable — “the Jews are our misfortune”, he wrote — and in the decade that followed, Germany and other European nations saw a surge in violent crimes targeting their Jewish populations. It was around this time that anti-Semitic began appearing frequently in English-language academic discourse and journalistic pieces. There was early confusion, however, over how it should be spelled. “The recent wild outburst of anti-Semetic feeling in certain portions of Europe fully demonstrate the continued deep-rooted prejudices which existed against the Jews”, reads an 1881 article from a Methodist periodical. An 1887 article in The American states that “We Americans, it seems, have more concern with the anti-semetic riots of the Russian cities […] than with the needs of the territories”. These were not mere typographical errors; you’ll find many more instances of the misspelling in publications throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (even in Jewish-run newspapers like The National Jewish Monthly and The Ottawa Jewish Bulletin), which implies that writers genuinely believed this was how the word was written — presumably because this is how they pronounced it. The error persists into the modern day: this month, in fact, WSHU public radio published an article with the headline “Anti-Semetic Graffiti Found at Hofstra University”. We can only speculate as to the reason why this misconception became so widespread, but one possible answer may be that words ending in -itic are less frequent than those ending in -etic, meaning that Simetic sounds more natural to Anglophones’ ears than Semitic. And a mispronunciation that has been corroborated, even if only occasionally, by a corresponding misspelling in written texts always has a fair chance of gaining acceptance.
All of this begs the question of whether or not the pronunciation (or spelling) truly is “wrong”. Most contemporary linguists will agree that the speakers of a language make the rules, not the grammar teachers or dictionary makers (or Medium writers). A lot of people, including the President of the United States, say “anti-Simetic”, and they don’t seem to have any problem being understood. You’ll find many comparable examples of mispronunciations gradually establishing themselves as the norm: take mischievous, into which many native English speakers sneak a third, invisible “i”, rendering it “mis-chiev-i-ous” (as with Semitic, this change probably occurred to match more prevalent patterns in the English language, mirroring words like oblivious or previous). We’ve been doing it for centuries — apron entered Middle English from French as naperon, and over time the initial “n” was worn away due to the corruption of “a napron” to “an apron”. Perhaps language purists of the 15th century would have winced at such a mistake, but try asking someone today if they’ve seen your “Hail-to-the-Chef” napron and see where that gets you. Language is meant to change, even if its speakers run the risk of being considered incorrect for a time. Although “Simetic” doesn’t appear in The Oxford English Dictionary, it is acknowledged in Merriam-Webster’s definition as an acceptable pronunciation, so maybe Trump isn’t saying it “wrong”, after all. At any rate, it’s more worthwhile to scrutinise what he says, rather than the way he says it.