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A shibboleth ([1] or [2]), in its original signification and in a meaning it still bears today, is a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups. Within the mindset of the ingroup, a connotation or value judgment of correct/incorrect or superior/inferior can be ascribed to the two variants.

In contemporary usage the word has acquired an extended meaning which is often cited first (and sometimes even exclusively) in shorter dictionaries, namely, an old belief or saying which is cited repetitively or unreflectively but which is, or may be, fallacious or untrue.[3][4][5][6] As an illustration of this usage the Concise Oxford Dictionary cites "[We] must abandon outdated shibboleths".


  • Origin 1
  • Modern use 2
  • Notable shibboleths 3
  • Shibboleths in fiction 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain[7] or, in different contexts, "stream, torrent".[8][9] The modern use derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ phoneme (as in shoe), from Gileadites, whose dialect did include such a phoneme.

Recorded in the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BCE), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the River Jordan back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river's fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these refugees, the Gileadites told each refugee to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimite dialect did not contain the "sh" sound and so those who pronounced the word as sibboleth were identified as Ephraimites and killed. [10][11] In the King James Bible[12] the anecdote appears thus (with the word already in its current English spelling):

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

Modern use

At the deep end of "The Crack" (Shibboleth) by Doris Salcedo (2007), Tate Modern, London.

In numerous cases of conflict between groups speaking different languages or dialects, one side used shibboleths in a way similar to the above-mentioned Biblical use, i.e., to discover hiding members of the opposing group. Modern researchers use the term "shibboleth" for all such uses, whether or not the people involved were using it themselves.

Today, in American English, a shibboleth also has a wider meaning, referring to any "in-group" word or phrase that can be used to distinguish members of a group from outsiders – even when not used by a hostile other group. The word is less well recognized in British English and possibly some other English-speaking groups. It is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean jargon, the proper use of which identifies speakers as members of a particular group or subculture.

The term shibboleth can also be extended, as in the discipline of semiotics, to describe non-linguistic elements of culture such as diet, fashion and cultural values.

Cultural touchstones and shared experience can also be shibboleths of a sort. For example, people about the same age who are from the same nation tend to have the same memories of popular songs, television shows, and events from their formative years. One-hit wonders prove particularly effective. Much the same is true of alumni of a particular school, veterans of military service, and other groups. Discussing such memories is a common way of bonding. In-jokes can be a similar type of shared-experience shibboleth.

Yet another more pejorative usage involves underlining the fact that the original meaning of a symbol has in effect been lost and that the symbol now serves merely to identify allegiance, being described as nothing more than a "shibboleth".

Nobel Prize-laureate economist Paul Samuelson applied the term "shibboleth" in works including Foundations of Economic Analysis to an idea for which "the means becomes the end, and the letter of the law takes precedence over the spirit."[13] Samuelson admitted that "shibboleth" is an imperfect term for this phenomenon, and sometimes used "fetish" as a synonym, though he complained that the latter "has too pejorative a ring."[14][15]

Notable shibboleths

Shibboleths have been used by different subcultures throughout the world at different times. Regional differences, level of expertise, and computer coding techniques are several forms that shibboleths have taken.

The legend goes that before the Guldensporenslag (Battle of the Golden Spurs) in May 1302, the Flemish slaughtered every Frenchman they could find in the city of Bruges, an act known as the Brugse Metten.[16] They identified Frenchmen based on their inability to pronounce the Flemish phrase schilt ende vriend (shield and friend), or possibly 's Gilden vriend (friend of the Guilds). However, many Medieval Flemish dialects did not contain the cluster sch- either (even today's Kortrijk dialect has sk-), and Medieval French rolled the r just as Flemish did.[17]

Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis; wa't dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries

Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis; wa't dat net sizze kin, is gijn oprjochte Fries (   ) means "Butter, rye bread and green cheese, whoever cannot say that is not a genuine Frisian" was used by the Frisian Pier Gerlofs Donia during a Frisian rebellion (1515–1523). Ships whose crew could not pronounce this properly were usually plundered and soldiers who could not were beheaded by Donia himself.[18]

The Dutch used the name of the seaside town of Scheveningen as a shibboleth to tell Germans from the Dutch ("Sch" in Dutch is analyzed as the letter "s" and the digraph "ch", producing the consonant cluster [sx], while in German it is analyzed as the trigraph "sch," pronounced [ʃ]).[19][20]

In October 1937 the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, was used as a shibboleth to identify Haitian immigrants living along the border in the Dominican Republic. The president of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, ordered the execution of these people. It is alleged that between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals were murdered within a few days in the Parsley Massacre although more recent scholarship and the lack of evidence such as mass graves puts the actual total as low as 1000.[21]

During the Black July riots of Sri Lanka in 1983 many Tamils were massacred by Sinhalese youths. In many cases these massacres took the form of boarding buses and getting the passengers to pronounce words that had hard BAs at the start of the word (like "Baldiya" - bucket) and executing the people who found it difficult.[22][23][24]

During Filipino military personnel. A shibboleth such as "lollapalooza" would be used by the sentry, who, if the first two syllables come back as rorra, would "open fire without waiting to hear the remainder".[26]

During The Troubles in Northern Ireland, use of the name Derry or Londonderry for the province's second-largest city was often taken as an indication of the speaker's political stance, and as such frequently implied more than simply naming a location.[27]

Shibboleths in fiction

In an episode of The West Wing titled "Shibboleth", President Bartlet becomes certain that a group of Chinese asylum seekers are indeed Christians in faith, when their representative uses the word shibboleth during their meeting.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "shibboleth". Oxford English Dictionary (second ed.). 1989. 
  2. ^ "shibboleth".  
  3. ^ Concise Oxford Dictionary, 8th ed, (Oxford University Press, 1990), 1117.
  4. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary, shibboleth, accessed online 22 September 2015, [5].
  5. ^ Collins English Dictionary, shibboleth, accessed online 22 September 2015, [6].
  6. ^ Chambers 21st Century Dictionary, shibboleth, accessed online 22 September 2015, [7].
  7. ^  
  8. ^ "shibboleth".   (this latter meaning is not in use in Modern Hebrew)
  9. ^ Cf. Isaiah 27:12.
  10. ^ Shakespeare, Steven (2009-08-25). Derrida and Theology. A&C Black. pp. 128–.  
  11. ^ Venolia, Jan (2003). The Right Word!: How to Say What You Really Mean. Ten Speed Press. pp. 150–.  
  12. ^ Judges 12:5-6.
  13. ^ Samuelson, Paul A. (1977). "When it is ethically optimal to allocate money income in stipulated fractional shares". Natural Resources, Uncertainty, and General Equilibrium Systems: Essays in Memory of Rafael Lusky. New York: Academic Press. pp. 175–195. Retrieved 2011-02-03. 
  14. ^ Samuelson, Paul A. (February 1956). "Social Indifference Curves". Quarterly Journal of Economics. Retrieved 2011-02-03. 
  15. ^ "Password for life". Daily News. Daily News (Sri Lankan State Newspaper). Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  16. ^ Devries, Kelly. Infantry Warfare in the Early 14th Century. N.p.: Boydell, 1996. Print.
  17. ^ Although the website Language Log: Born on the 11th of July says that the /sχ/ cluster in schild that makes it difficult for French-speakers to pronounce had not yet developed in the 14th century, the phrase "scilt en vrient" is referenced in primary sources such as the Chronique of Gilles Li Muisis as distinguishing French from Flemish.
  18. ^ "Greate Pier fan Wûnseradiel" (in Western Frisian). Gemeente Wûnseradiel. Retrieved 2008-01-04. 
  19. ^ "Zonder ons erbij te betrekken" Retrieved on 23 december 2011
  20. ^ Corstius, H. B. (1981) Opperlandse taal- & letterkunde, Querido's Uitgeverij, Amsterdam. Retrieved on 23 december 2011
  21. ^ Vega, Bernardo (10 October 2012). "La matanza de 1937". La lupa sin trabas (in Spanish). Retrieved 7 January 2014. Durante los meses de octubre y diciembre de 1937, fuentes haitianas, norteamericanas e inglesas ubicadas en Haití dieron cifras que oscilaron entre 1,000 y 12,168 
  22. ^ Hyndman, Patricia. "Senior Lecturer in Law, University of New South Wales". Lawasia Human Rights Standing Committee Report -Democracy in Peril, June 198. 
  23. ^ McNamara, Tim (May 17, 2002). "INSIDER, OUTSIDER: LANGUAGE TESTS AS WEAPONS IN INTERGROUP CONFLICT". Invited address, Language Assessment Ethics Conference, Pasadena, CA. 
  24. ^ "Passport to life". Daily News. Daily News (Sri Lanka's state broadsheet). Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  25. ^ US Army & Navy, 1942. HOW TO SPOT A JAP Educational Comic Strip, (from US govt's POCKET GUIDE TO CHINA, 1st edition). Retrieved 10-10-2007
  26. ^ Stimpson, George W. (1946). A Book about a Thousand Things. Harper & Brothers. p. 51. 
  27. ^ [8]
  28. ^ Trevor Parry-Giles; Shawn J. Parry-Giles (2006). The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U. S. Nationalism. University of Illinois Press. p. 101. 

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