October 20th, 2019

words 6
  • sallymn

Sunday Word: Shibboleth

shibboleth [shib-uh-lith, ‐leth]
1 a A custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important' a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning
   b a widely held belief
   c truism, platitutde

2 a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group
   b a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others held belief


Herzog was never just a novel; from the beginning it was a symbol, a crucible, a shibboleth. (Nathaniel Rich, American Dreams: Saul Bellow’s Masterpiece of Lamentation, 2017)

Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome 'nerves' or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire (E M Forster, A Room With A View)

Through a relation, friend or neighbour, we are handed down our crafty DNA in the form of DK yarn, an abbreviation for 'double knitting'. DK is often our first shibboleth - this type of yarn is light enough for inexpert fingers to handle easily but sufficiently thick to soon show progress. (Esther Rutter, Purl power: Why I quit my job to knit my way around Ireland and Britain, The Irish Times, 2019)

Thank God I have done with these people and their disgusting shibboleth of respectability. (E Phillips Oppenheim, A Millionaire of Yesterday)

Yet we have a great deal to make us glad, and just now I feel as blithe as a bird. (Martha Finley, The Thorn in the Nest)


Mid 17th century from Hebrew šibbōleṯ 'ear of corn', used as a test of nationality by its difficult pronunciation (Judg. 12:6). (Oxford English Dictionary)

The Bible's Book of Judges (12:4-6) tells the story of the Ephraimites, who, after they were routed by the Gileadite army, tried to retreat by sneaking across a ford of the Jordan River that was held by their enemy. The Gileadites, wary of the ploy, asked every soldier who tried to cross if he was an Ephraimite. When the soldier said 'no,' he was asked to say 'shibboleth' (which means 'stream' in Hebrew). Gileadites pronounced the word shibboleth, but Ephramites said 'sibboleth.' Anyone who left out the initial 'sh' was killed on the spot. When English speakers first borrowed 'shibboleth,' they used it to mean 'test phrase,' but it has acquired additional meanings since that time. (Merriam-Webster)

late 14c., the Hebrew word shibboleth, meaning 'flood, stream,' also 'ear of corn;' in Judges xii.4-6. It was the password used by the Gileadites to distinguish their own men from fleeing Ephraimites, because Ephraimites could not pronounce the -sh- sound. Hence the figurative sense of 'watchword' (first recorded 1630s), which evolved by 1862 to 'outmoded slogan still adhered to.' A similar test-word was cicera 'chick pease,' used by the Italians to identify the French (who could not pronounce it correctly) during the massacre called the Sicilian Vespers (1282). (Online Etymology Dictionary)