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Word Wisdom: Shibboleth

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser
Word Wisdom

Doug asked for some research on the word shibboleth. If you are not familiar with this word, it is used in the contexts that follow. ‘She repeated the old shibboleth that time heals all wounds.’ ‘We knew that their claim of giving “the best deal in town” was just a shibboleth.’

Shibboleth means a platitude or truth, not necessarily accepted by all. It was used in the English language in 1638 as a saying employed by adherents of a group or sect that was usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning. Andrews Marantz wrote in The New Yorker (June 27, 2022), “At CPAC Orlando, most of the speakers ritually invoked the shibboleth that Trump had actually won the 2020 election, despite all evidence.” Both sides of the climate change debate quote shibboleths to make their point.

The Bible's Book of Judges recounts the story of the Ephraimites (a tribe of ancient Israel), who, after they were routed by a Gileadite army (area of the present-day Kingdom of Jordan), tried to retreat by sneaking across a ford of the Jordan River that was held by their enemy. The Gileadites, suspicious of the plan, asked every person who tried to cross if they were an Ephraimite. When an individual said "no," they were asked to say “shibboleth” (which means "stream" in Hebrew). Most members of the tribe of Ephraim pronounced the word in a unique way, not articulating the “sh” at the beginning of the word but using just an ‘s’ sound.  Anyone who did not pronounce the initial ‘sh’ was killed on the spot. (Judges chapter 12) When English speakers first borrowed shibboleth, they used it to mean a test phrase or password. The concept of a shibboleth has been used as such in many countries and languages.

There is an anecdote in Sicily that, during the rebellion of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282, the inhabitants of the island killed people belonging to the French occupiers by using a shibboleth. Those suspected of being French were outed because, when questioned, they could not correctly pronounce the Sicilian word ‘ciciri’ (chickpeas).

The legend goes that before the Battle of the Golden Spurs in May 1302, the Flemish slaughtered every French person they could find in the city of Bruges who could not pass a shibboleth. The Brugse Metten identified foreigners based on their inability to properly pronounce the Flemish phrase schild en vriend (shield and friend).

In October 1937, the Spanish word ‘perejil’ (parsley), was used as a shibboleth to identify Haitian immigrants living along the border in the Dominican Republic. Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, ordered the execution of these people. It is alleged that between 20,000 and 30,000 people were murdered in the Parsley Massacre.

During the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, the Dutch used the name of the seaside town of Scheveningen as a shibboleth to discover German spies among the Dutch. The ‘sch’ produces a ‘sx’ sound in Dutch, while the Germans would say it more like a ‘sh.’

In Australia and New Zealand, the words "fish and chips" are often used as a shibboleth to discover which country someone is from. Australian English has a higher forward sounding ‘i’, close to the ‘y’ in happy and city, while New Zealand English has a lower backward sound, a version of the ‘a’ in about and comma. Thus, New Zealanders hear Australians say "feesh and cheeps", while Australians hear New Zealanders say "fush and chups".

Also, we use shibboleth to refer to any in-group "coded" word or phrase that may distinguish members of a certain group from outsiders. Sometimes, this word simply serves as a synonym of the words jargon or slang, which are words that primarily get used by members of a specific group or subculture. In the IT community a shibboleth is a specific sort of a password that allows members of a particular community to access an online resource without needing to reveal their actual identity.

You might want to try saying the word shibboleth three times in a row to determine your level of competency after having an alcoholic drink or the two you are now allotted for the week.

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to . Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 

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