Word Wisdom: Shibboleth – MooseJawToday.com
Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser
Doug asked for research on the word shibboleth. If you are not familiar with this word, it is used in the following contexts. “She repeated the old shibboleth that time heals all wounds.” “We knew their claim of offering ‘the best deal in town’ was just a shibboleth.”
Shibboleth means a platitude or truth that is not necessarily accepted by everyone. It came into use in the English language in 1638 as a proverb used by adherents of a group or sect usually considered meaningless by others. Andrews Marantz wrote in The New Yorker (June 27, 2022): “At CPAC Orlando, most speakers ritualistically invoked the shibboleth that Trump did indeed win the 2020 election despite all the evidence.” Both sides of the climate change debate cite shibboleths, um to clarify their point of view.
The Bible’s Book of Judges tells the story of the Ephraimites (a tribe of ancient Israel) who, after being routed by a Gileadite army (territory of what is now the Kingdom of Jordan), attempted to retreat by crossing over a ford crept up the Jordan, which was held by their enemy. The Gileadites, suspicious of the plan, asked any person trying to cross them if they were an Ephraimite. If a person 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 pronouncing the “sh” at the beginning of the word, but using only an “s” sound. Anyone who did not pronounce the first letter “sh” was killed on the spot. (Richter, Chapter 12) When English speakers first borrowed Shibboleth, they used it to mean a test phrase or password. As such, the concept of a shibboleth has been used in many countries and languages.
In Sicily, there is an anecdote that during the Sicilian Vespers Rebellion in 1282, the islanders killed members of the French occupiers with a shibboleth. Suspicious French people were outed because they could not pronounce the Sicilian word “ciciri” (chickpeas) correctly when questioned.
Legend has it that before the Battle of the Golden Spurs in May 1302, the Flemish slaughtered every Frenchman they could find in the city of Bruges who failed a shibboleth. The Brugse Metten identified foreigners based on their inability to correctly pronounce the Flemish expression 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 claimed 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 coastal town of Scheveningen as a shibboleth to detect German spies among the Dutch. The ‘sch’ produces an ‘sx’ sound in Dutch, while Germans would say it more like an ‘sh’.
In Australia and New Zealand, the words “fish and chips” are often used as a shibboleth to find out what country someone is from. Australian English has a higher pitched forward “i” near the “y” in happy and city, while New Zealand English has a lower pitched backward sound, a version of the “a” in about and comma. For example, 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 “coded” words or phrases within a group that can distinguish members of a particular group from outsiders. Sometimes this word simply serves as a synonym for the words jargon or slang used primarily by members of a particular group or subculture. In the IT community, a shibboleth is a special type of password that allows members of a specific community to access an online resource without having to reveal their actual identity.
You can try saying the word Shibboleth three times in a row to determine your proficiency level after you’ve had one or the two alcoholic beverages you’ve now been allocated for the week.
John would like to know if anyone has a serious interest in a relevant word that they could potentially research for an upcoming column. If yes, please send your requests to [email protected] Words are selected based on relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words are used.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.