First used in the 1770s by members of the Göttingen School of History, the terminology was derived from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the Book of Genesis, together with the parallel terms Hamites and Japhetites. The terminology is now largely obsolete outside linguistics. However, in archaeology, the term is sometimes used informally as "a kind of shorthand" for ancient Semitic-speaking peoples.
In the racialist classifications of Carleton S. Coon, the Semitic peoples were considered to be members of the Caucasian race, not dissimilar in appearance to the neighbouring Indo-European, Northwest Caucasian, and Kartvelian-speaking peoples of the region. As language studies are interwoven with cultural studies, the term also came to describe the religions (ancient Semitic and Abrahamic) and Semitic-speaking ethnicities as well as the history of these varied cultures as associated by close geographic and linguistic distribution.
Some recent genetic studies have found (by analysis of the DNA of Semitic-speaking peoples) that they have some common ancestry. Although no significant common mitochondrial results have been found, Y-chromosomal links between Semitic-speaking peoples of the Middle East like Arabs, Jews, Mandaeans, Samaritans, and Assyrians/Syriacs have shown links, despite differences contributed from other groups (see Y-chromosomal Aaron).
A DNA study of "six Middle Eastern populations (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Kurdish Jews from Israel; Muslim Kurds; Muslim Arabs from Israel and the Palestinian Authority Area; and Bedouin from the Negev)" found that Jews were more closely related to groups in the north of the Fertile Crescent (Kurds, Turks, and Armenians) than to their Arab neighbors.
Genetic studies indicate that modern Jews (Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi specifically), Levantine Arabs, Assyrians/Syriacs, Samaritans, Maronites, Druze, Mandaeans, and Mhallami, all have a common Near Eastern heritage which can be genetically mapped back to the ancient Fertile Crescent, but often also display genetic profiles distinct from one another, indicating the different histories of these peoples.
The terms "anti-Semite" or "antisemitism" came by a circuitous route to refer more narrowly to anyone who was hostile or discriminatory towards Jews in particular.
Anthropologists of the 19th century such as Ernest Renan readily aligned linguistic groupings with ethnicity and culture, appealing to anecdote, science and folklore in their efforts to define racial character. Moritz Steinschneider, in his periodical of Jewish letters Hamaskir (3 (Berlin 1860), 16), discusses an article by Heymann Steinthal criticising Renan's article "New Considerations on the General Character of the Semitic Peoples, In Particular Their Tendency to Monotheism". Renan had acknowledged the importance of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Israel etc. but called the Semitic races inferior to the Aryan for their monotheism, which he held to arise from their supposed lustful, violent, unscrupulous and selfish racial instincts. Steinthal summed up these predispositions as "Semitism", and so Steinschneider characterised Renan's ideas as "anti-Semitic prejudice".
In 1879 the German journalist Wilhelm Marr began the politicisation of the term by speaking of a struggle between Jews and Germans in a pamphlet called Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum ("The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism"). He accused the Jews of being liberals, a people without roots who had Judaized Germans beyond salvation. In 1879 Marr's adherents founded the "League for Anti-Semitism", which concerned itself entirely with anti-Jewish political action.
Objections to the usage of the term, such as the obsolete nature of the term "Semitic" as a racial term and the exclusion of discrimination against non-Jewish Semitic peoples, have been raised since at least the 1930s.
...there is no Semitic ethnicity, only Semitic languages
The confusion between race and language goes back a long way, and was compounded by the rapidly changing content of the word "race" in European and later in American usage. Serious scholars have pointed out-repeatedly and ineffectually--that "Semitic" is a linguistic and cultural classification, denoting certain languages and in some contexts the literatures and civilizations expressed in those languages. As a kind of shorthand, it was sometimes retained to designate the speakers of those languages. At one time it might thus have had a connotation of race, when that word itself was used to designate national and cultural entities. It has nothing whatever to do with race in the anthropological sense that is now common usage. A glance at the present-day speakers of Arabic, from Khartoum to Aleppo and from Mauritania to Mosul, or even of Hebrew speakers in the modern state of Israel, will suffice to show the enormous diversity of racial types.
It has long been realised that there are objections to the term anti-Semitism and therefore an endeavour has been made to find a word which better interprets the meaning intended. Already in 1936 Bolkestein, for example, wrote an article on Het "antisemietisme" in de oudheid (Anti-Semitism in the ancient world) in which the word was placed between quotation marks and a preference was expressed for the term hatred of the Jews... Nowadays the term anti-Judaism is often preferred. It certainly expresses better than anti-Semitism the fact that it concerns the attitude to the Jews and avoids any suggestion of racial distinction, which was not or hardly, a factor of any significance in ancient times. For this reason Leipoldt preferred to speak of anti-Judaism when writing his Antisemitsmus in der alien Welt (l933). Bonsirven also preferred this word to Anti-Semitism, "mot moderne qui implique une théorie des races".
The term 'anti-Semitism' was unsuitable from the beginning for the real essence of Jew-hatred, which remained anchored, more or less, in the Christian tradition even when it moved via the natural sciences, into racism. It is doubtful whether the term which was first publicized in an institutional context (the Anti-Semitic League) would have appeared at all if the 'Anti-Chancellor League,' which fought Bismarck's policy, had not been in existence since 1875. The founders of the new Organization adopted the elements of 'anti' and 'league,' and searched for the proper term: Marr exchanged the term 'Jew' for 'Semite' which he already favored. It is possible that the shortened form 'Sem' is used with such frequency and ease by Marr (and in his writings) due to its literary advantage and because it reminded Marr of Sem Biedermann, his Jewish employer from the Vienna period.