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shibboleth

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Shibboleth

NOUN


Shibboleth originally meant ear of corn in Ancient Hebrew. Today, because of a story in the bible, we use the word like this:

  • For a test, based on distinctive pronunciation, of whether someone is in a particular ethnic or social group.
  • More generally, for any practice, custom, or belief that serves to identify a particular group.
Sounds like: SHIB-uh-lith (IPA: /’ʃɪbələθ/)

Etymology

Map of Ancient Israel showing Ephraim and Gilead regions

Ephraim and Gilead regions of Ancient Israel

"shibboleth" etymology

“shibboleth” etymology

The Gileadites vs. the Ephraimites

  • In ancient Israel, there were two neighbouring regions, Ephraim and Gilead, occupied by two different tribes.
  • Sometime around 1300 B.C., tensions between these two tribes escalated into war—a nasty war, which the Gileadites won decisively. Pretty soon, the remaining Ephraimites were all reduced to fleeing refugees.
  • Bent on ethnic cleansing, the Gileadites decided to hunt down and kill the last of the Ephraimites. For this purpose they set up a series of check-points along the river Jordon.

    picture of soldier questioning refugee

    Gilead vs. Ephraim

  • Now, at this stage the Gileadites needed a test: everyone looked kind of the same, so how could they tell who was an Ephraimite and who wasn’t? It wasn’t like anyone was going to just admit it.
  • Fortunately for the Gileadites, a simple pronunciation-based test was available: in Gilead, the Hebrew word for ear of corn was pronounced shibboleth (שבלת), beginning with the sound /ʃ/ (as in ship) ; but Ephraimites could not say this word ‘correctly’: they pronounced it sibboleth, with an /s/.

    picture of an ear of corn

    shibboleth (or ‘sibboleth’ in Ephraim)

  • Latching onto this linguistic difference, the Gileadites asked everyone at the checkpoints to try and say shibboleth, and in this way caught and killed a whopping 42,000 Ephraimites—a story included in the Old Testament (Judges 12:6).
  • Based on that biblical passage, English speakers adopted the word shibboleth for this kind of language-based test in around 1650.  We also now use it in a more general sense, like this: any practice, custom, or belief that serves to distinguish a particular group.

More Shibboleths

The Gileadites are the first on record, but human linguistic diversity makes similar tests easy to construct, and language-based shibboleths have been used throughout the gruesome history of human conflict; see here for a detailed listing.


Sources

  • Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0>.
  • The Oxford English Dictionary by Simpson, J. A and Weiner, E. S. C
    1989, 2nd ed, ISBN 9780198611868, 20 v.
  • “The New International Version (NIV) Bible.” New International Version (NIV) Bible. Biblica, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://www.biblica.com/niv/>.

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