SHIBBOLETH: “1. an old idea, opinion, or saying that is commonly believed and repeated but that may be seen as old-fashioned or untrue; 2. a word or way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group.” – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth (שבלת),” and he said, “Sibboleth (סבלת),” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell. – Judges 12:5-6 (ESV)

Maybe I actually paid attention in Sunday School, but when I hear shibboleth, I think of the original Biblical definition, not the current meaning of “oft-repeated axiom.” Because shibboleth is a long, vaguely obscure word of foreign origin, it gets lots of play in the media and on conference calls everywhere. Ah, I thought, a perfect punching bag for!

Imagine my surprise, then, to find the current definition goes back to 1862. In the 1600s, when people were more Biblically literate (if they were literate at all), when Anglophones heard shibboleth, they thought “watchword.” That changed over the next two centuries, I guess because passwords become rote when used too often. I wouldn’t classify this as a logical shift, but when are these shifts ever logical?

This doesn’t mean the original meaning has disappeared, but it has taken a backseat to the newer definition. This may be one lexicide that never truly dies, for what else would you call a loyalty test based on pronunciation?  According to some sources, American troops in the Pacific tested for Japanese infiltrators by making then say “lollapalooza,” an impossible feat for those whose native language has no L sound. (Chinese, Korean, and other oriental languages have the L sound, so any portrayal of a Chinese subbing Rs for Ls is wrong!)

So as the Gileadites knew, shibboleths divide, not unite. As a result, they receive a fair amount of opprobrium from “the expert class,” who sniffs at any whiff of provincialism. I care not. I have my own shibboleths – if you use these words correctly, I acknowledge your project requests. If not, well, let me introduce you to the paper shredder at the fords of the Jordan. Shalom, suckers.

Otto E. Mezzo

Acknowledged in the article at
American Psychological Association (APA)
Chicago Manual Style (CMS)
Modern Language Association (MLA)
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)