Letter reveals why Oxford English Dictionary’s first editor left out ‘anti-Semite’

The famous British lexicographer didn’t believe the word would last.

By World Israel News Staff

British lexicographer James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, decided against including the word “anti-Semite” in the first edition of the dictionary in 1879, Agence France-Presse reports.

When Claude Montefiore, a leading member of Britain’s Jewish community, found out that “anti-Semite” and its derivative terms would be left out, he wrote to Murray.

Israel National Library archivist Rachel Misrati recently found Murray’s reply, dated July 5, 1900. (The OED was a work of many years, running from 1884 to 1928.)

Murray’s letter said that anti-Semite had only entered English from German in 1881. Murray said the word wouldn’t last.

“Anti-Semite and its family were then probably very new in English use, and not thought likely to be more than passing nonce-words,” Murray wrote.

“Hence they did not receive treatment in a separate article,” he said, adding that “the man in the street would have said Anti-Jewish.”

“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,” Murray wrote.

Murray wasn’t far off. The word was coined in in 1879 by German anti-Semite Wilhelm Marr.

Misrati, who found the letter while researching an article on British autographs at the National Library, told AFP that the exchange of letters shows that British Jewry was already worried about anti-Semitism “even though for the Jews in England – compared to many other countries – they were in a very good position.”

“Anti-Semitism in the beginning was against the Semitic races, so he’s placing it in its anti-Jewish context,” she said. “It’s a missing link in the chain of history.”

In 1900, Murray admitted he may have been wrong about his decision to leave the word out. “Would that anti-Semitism had had no more than a fleeting interest!” he wrote.

He told Montefiore that he had hoped the liberal rebellions of 1848 showed Europe “had left ignorance, suspicion and brute force behind us.”

“How the devil must have chuckled at our foolish dreams,” Murray wrote to Montefiore.

“The closing years of the 19th c. have shown, alas! that much of Christianity is only a temporary whitewash over brutal savagery,” he wrote.

“It is unutterably saddening to one like myself who remembers ’48 and the high hopes we had in the fifties.”

“Probably if we had to do that post now, we should have to make Anti-Semite a main word,” Murray wrote.