The first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary thought that the term “anti-Semite” would be short-lived and thus did not include it in the original edition of the massive lexicon.
A 1900 letter by the editor, James Murray, explaining why he omitted the term was discovered recently in the archives of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem and placed online. The OED was first published in several installments between 1884 and 1928.
Murray, a British lexicographer, was writing to scholar and anti-Zionist Claude Montefiore, a great-nephew of Moses Montefiore, one of the most important early supporters of the modern Zionist movement. The letter appears to be in response to a query from Montefiore.
“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,” Murray wrote. “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.’”
Murray said that the man on the street likely would have used the term “anti-Jewish.” He also explained that “the material for anti- words was so enormous that much violence had to be employed” to triage them.
The term “Semitism” did appear in the dictionary’s first edition, along with mention of the fact that “In recent use,” it had already come to be associated with “Jewish ideas or Jewish influence in policy and society.”
Murray’s letter was uncovered as part of an initiative, supported by the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in the National Library’s archives, which include personal papers, photographs, and documents from modern historical cultural figures.
The OED list of new entries for January contains dozens of items with Jewish content, from “bialy” to “Jewfro” to “yeshiva bochur.”