The words “Semite” and “Semitic” have several distinct but overlapping meanings—among them, one used in biblical genealogy and another in language study. These words are derived from the name of Shem, the first of Noah’s three sons. The earliest forms of these words in English—following Hebrew pronunciation—were “Shemite” and “Shemitic,” until these pronunciations were displaced in the middle of the 19th century by the current forms, which are based on Latin.
Latin learning was largely derived from Greek models. Since the Greek language did not have the sh sound, when the ancient Greeks borrowed Hebrew words with this sound, they regularly transcribed and pronounced them with an s instead; thus “Shem” became “Sem.” This form of the name then spread via Latin. The ending -ite, meaning “native of” or “belonging to,” is found also in “Manhattanite” and “Muscovite.” Hence, a Semite is “someone related to Shem.”