Features November/December 2022

Recontextualizing the Hyphen in ‘Anti-Semitism’

By Gillian Mohn

Inclusive style guides and bias-free language often neglect references to Jewish culture or terminology, inadvertently supporting the continued use of words specifically intended to be anti-Jewish.

As promoting inclusive language has become a mainstream topic, style guides have expanded their bias-free language sections and considered new spellings of previously accepted words and phrases. The way that people write about social justice has become more and more closely examined, and style guides are following suit to support efforts in social justice and bias-free language in topics including religion, race, and ability.

One of the oldest major world religions, Judaism is culturally far-reaching, and Jewish people exist in various states of diaspora across the globe. However, Jewish people are often isolated from these discussions of inclusivity, even in the face of rising statistics of antisemitic violence and hate crimes in the United States. Most style manuals lack reference to Jewish culture or words entirely in discussions of inclusive and bias-free language.

For style guides to continue to promote inclusivity and contribute to bias-free language progress, they must address this gap. In particular, the spelling of the word “antisemitism” specifically has been discussed and debated in intra-community platforms. This article examines why it matters.

Meaning of ‘Semitism’

In 1879, German political journalist Wilhelm Marr was the first to use the term “antisemitism,” coined not by Jewish people to give a word to the specific experience of discrimination and violence they experience but by an antisemite attempting to align himself with other antisemites. Marr used his publications to bring together people who would form the League of Antisemites, an organization “committed to combating the alleged Jewish takeover of Germany and German culture.” Because of Marr’s popularization of “antisemitism” to refer to the ideology held by people who would rid Germany of Jewish people, the term is commonly taken at face value and implicitly understood to refer to the particular kind of ethnoreligious prejudice Jewish have faced both historically and currently.

The two components of the word — “anti” and “Semitism” — denote being opposed to a “Semitic” identity. This is not an identity that exists in the modern understanding of ethnicity and community. “Semite” was coined by a historian in the nineteenth century to refer to a person who speak Semitic languages, or languages predominantly spoken in the Middle East, too vast a number of languages for each speaker to belong to a universal Semitic identity. Because of the time and context of Marr’s publications, the word should have referred to people who resided in the Middle East. However, he chose to use this word in a context of specifically hatred for Jewish people, and he made no mention of Middle Eastern people whatsoever in his writings. People who speak Semitic languages and people from the Middle East do not face antisemitism unless they are, specifically, Jewish, so the origin of the meaning of “antisemitism” was fallacious from its inception.

Marr associated “antisemitism” with Jewish people so deeply that it has persisted over time, distorting the original meaning of “Semitism” entirely. The perception of a Jewish ethnicity and a Semitic ethnicity have become conflated into a synonymous identity, regarded as a “form of pseudo-scientific racial classification” by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IRHA).

Capitalizing “Semitism” in “anti-Semitism” would only be appropriate if it were referring to the hatred of a Semitic identity. To capitalize the word “Semitic” within the word “antisemitism” implies an identity that does not exist and is irrelevant to a word that is meant to refer to the hatred of Jewish people.

Style Guide Analysis

Removing the hyphen and not capitalizing the word “Semitism” gives the most accurate meaning because it does not — or at least to a lesser extent — imply a Semitic identity where there is not one and thus a hatred of Semitic people, which does not exist. However, prominent style guides do not reflect this.

Data gathered from searching through several style manuals and style guides revealed a dearth of information not only on antisemitism but on Judaism and Jewish culture entirely, confirming a hypothesis that the term “antisemitism” was being continually used and promoted without consideration for historical context or current Jewish scholarship. A preference of a spelling of “antisemitism” with no hyphen or capitalization is strong, but only in smaller circles, typically outside of the American-centric conversation of social justice and bias-free language. Prominent newspapers published in other countries, such as the Times of Israel, the Canadian Jewish Record, and Haaretz, have touched on this topic, citing both Jewish journalists and scholars.1,2 These sources were largely in agreement that the historical context of “antisemitism” could not be divorced from its current commonly understood usage and meaning. Bringing together the desire of many style guides to promote inclusivity and bias-free language in this wave of social justice with Jewish voices results in a win-win scenario for both parties.

The following style guides made no mention of Jewish people whatsoever: the American Medical Association Style Guide (AMA), Associated Press Stylebook (AP), Council of Science Editors Style Guide (CSE), Government Publishing Office Style Manual (GPO), Microsoft Style Guide, and the Modern Language Association Style Manual (MLA). Style guides that have had recent editions published that have included more robust sections relating to social justice made this all the more noticeable.

Even more surprising than these style manuals lacking reference to Jewish words and phrases were the style guides that are specifically meant to provide resources on inclusive and bias-free language lacking information as well. For example, the Conscious Style Guide has no entry for “antisemitism.” However, the editors have published articles about topics in Jewish culture, and every article consistently uses the spelling “anti-Semitism,” showcasing their own style decision. The goal of the Conscious Style Guide to improve inclusivity would benefit from an expanded section on bias-free language in religious contexts. The Religion Stylebook, a freely available style guide created by and for journalists, was the only style guide to have an entry and did not rely on users referencing a dictionary source for the spelling of “antisemitism.” However, where most style guides treat their entries as explanations for style choices, the Religion Stylebook chose instead to define the meanings of the word itself; there is no reason listed for including the hyphen and capitalization. In this sense, the Religion Stylebook is less of a style guide and more of a glossary for religious terms a journalist might need to understand or write about. Much like the Conscious Style Guide, the Religion Stylebook would benefit from articulating its specific style choices.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) does not have an entry for “Semitism,” “Semite,” “antisemitism,” or any other related words but makes a brief mention of “Ethiopian Semitic languages” in an unrelated frequently asked questions section where “Semitic” is capitalized but otherwise unexplored. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary,3 to be used in conjunction with Chicago Manual of Style, capitalizes all versions of “Semite.” Editors using the 2017 edition of this manual must adhere to its rule that “a hyphen should appear…before a capitalized word or numeral,” meaning that if an editor must capitalize all variations of the word “Semite” regardless of context, the word “antisemitism” must always include a hyphen. However, this style manual also addresses a trend toward closed compounds, stating that “compounds formed with prefixes are normally closed” while simultaneously suggesting “when in doubt, opt for an open compound” — though not a hyphenated compound. Given the previously discussed entries, the claim to “[prefer] a spare hyphenation style,” and the push for inclusive language regarding religion, race, ethnicity, and personal identity, it would seem that the Chicago Manual of Style would readily accept a specific rule for the writing of “anti-Semitism” to be changed to “antisemitism” located in its “Bias-Free Language” section.

Because the Associated Press style choices refer to the Webster’s New World College Dictionary — distinct from the Chicago Manual of Style’s deference to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary — newspaper and journal headlines adhere to the popular usage of “anti-Semitism” (Sommer, 2020). The Associated Press Stylebook makes no specific mention of this topic in any section, including in the “Religion,” “Ethnicity,” and general spelling sections, leaving instead Webster to decide. The most recent (2020) version of Webster’s New World College Dictionary stays the course with the spelling of “anti-Semitism.” However, a brief note is included at the bottom of the entry labeled “Usage.”

Some writers and scholars prefer the alternate form antisemitic because they contend that the form anti-Semitic suggests being opposed to (the) Semites, a term that could include Arabs and other peoples, when in fact the word means anti-Jewish.

This is the only dictionary or style manual that mentions “antisemitism” as an optional spelling. This entry acknowledges an opposing voice to be heard and succinctly gives explanation both for the style choice and historical context. Were AP style to adopt “antisemitism” completely and reject “anti-Semitism,” the hyphen-less spelling would become standard in major news and media outlets.

The Impact of Style Guides on Inclusivity

Style manuals have the opportunity to effect change in writing and media through careful consideration of their inclusive and bias-free language decisions. If both smaller style guides that are focused on inclusive and bias-free language, such as the Conscious Style Guide and the Religion Stylebook, and larger, industry-dominating style manuals, such as the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook, took explicit stances on the spelling of the word “antisemitism,” their goals of promoting inclusivity and social justice would be furthered, Jewish voices would be acknowledged and put into action, and change would be enacted on the general public’s perception of the meaning of “antisemitism.” Doing so would be a step toward undoing the distortion of the word “antisemitism” and the conflation of a Jewish and Semitic identity. At the very least, further conversation outside Jewish circles would be sparked and attention would be brought to this issue, as style guides lay the decision-making foundations for writers and editors across all fields and disciplines.

The Anti-defamation League (ADL), an organization committed to supporting the wellbeing of Jewish people as well as curbing the spread of antisemitism, suggests that “while removing a hyphen by itself won’t defeat antisemitism, we believe this slight alteration will help to clarify understanding of this age-old hatred.” If style manuals were to include entries regarding the spelling of “antisemitism,” Jewish voices and scholarship would be brought more prominently into the larger conversation of social justice and bias-free language. Style manuals have updated over the years to keep up with changing times, and the time to include Jewish voices is long overdue.


  1. Bandler, Aaron. 2020. “Holocaust Scholar Deborah Lipstadt Says It’s Spelled Antisemitism Not Anti-Semitism.” Jewish Journal. https://jewishjournal.com/news/united-states/315659/deborah-lipstadt-pandemic-anti-semitism-hyphen.
  2. Sommer, Allison Kaplan. 2020. “Anti-Antisemitism? A Battle Rages Over the Jewish Hyphen.” Haaretz.
  3. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 5th ed. 2020. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

GILLIAN MOHN (16gmohn@gmail.com) received her master’s in rhetoric, composition, and professional communication and her bachelor’s in technical communication and philosophy from Iowa State University. As a technical communicator, she has worked in engineering, national security, the fine arts, machine operation, and property law communication. She currently works for Drake University.