Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. A word or pronunciation that distinguishes people of one group or class from those of another.
  • n. A word or phrase identified with a particular group or cause; a catchword.
  • n. A commonplace saying or idea.
  • n. A custom or practice that betrays one as an outsider.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. A word, especially seen as a test, to distinguish someone as belonging to a particular nation, class, profession etc.
  • n. A common or longstanding belief, custom, or catchphrase associated with a particular group, especially one with little current meaning or truth.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • n. A word which was made the criterion by which to distinguish the Ephraimites from the Gileadites. The Ephraimites, not being able to pronounce sh, called the word sibboleth. See Judges xii.
  • n. Also used in an extended sense.
  • n. Hence, the criterion, test, or watchword of a party; a party cry or pet phrase.

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • n. A Hebrew word, meaning ‘ear of corn’ or ‘stream,’ used by Jephthah, one of the judges of Israel, as a test-word by which to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the sh in shibboleth) from his own men, the Gileadites (Judges xii. 4–6); hence, a test-word, or the watchword or pet phrase of a party, sect, or school.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • n. a favorite saying of a sect or political group
  • n. a manner of speaking that is distinctive of a particular group of people

Etymologies

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

Ultimately from Hebrew šibbōlet, torrent of water, from the use of this word to distinguish one tribe from another that pronounced it sibbōlet (Judges 12:4-6).

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

From Hebrew שבולת (šibbōlet, "ear of wheat"), with reference to Judges 12:5-6: ‘Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, “Let me cross,” the men of Gilead would ask, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” they then said, “Very well, say Shibboleth.” If anyone said “Sibboleth”, but could not pronounce it, they would then seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan.’ (New Jerusalem Bible)

Examples

  • In English the Hebrew word shibboleth now sometimes refers to clichés or tired slogans.

    Bloodlust

  • I've read the word shibboleth a hundred times, written it a few, and probably even said it myself, but I had never understood it until then.

    Slate Magazine

  • The word shibboleth in ancient Hebrew dialects meant 'ear of grain' (or, some say, 'stream').

    BP | Asian Correspondent

  • People who want to make this about Joe Wilson have their official Faux News blinders on (you can tell when they repeat catch phrases like “criminilization of politics” – that’s what you call a shibboleth).

    Think Progress » White House Responds To Criticism of Bush’s Leak With More Leaks

  • “A shibboleth is a test—a way to separate da wheat from da chaff that's as old as the Bible, but as new as the latest trend in men's fashions,” Gus says.

    Our Merchant-Ivory Weekend

  • The notion that there is a global conspiracy by professional scientists to falsify results in order to get more research money is, to borrow Quiggen's words about birtherism, "a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe."

    David Roberts: What We Have and Haven't Learned From 'Climategate'

  • And, so, this shibboleth, which is largely used by Republicans, to say, oh, the Democrats want terrorists in your -- in your neighborhood, in your community, that is a lot of baloney.

    CNN Transcript May 14, 2009

  • But 21st century realities are shattering the elite's most treasured shibboleth, which is that America will always have the power to remake the world, to establish one new world order after another.

    James Pinkerton: Reagan Democrats Will Change America--And the World

  • A shibboleth is a mantra to which people get attached because it is easier than hard thinking.

    Irish Blogs

  • A shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that identifies one as a member, or a non-member, of a particular group.

    BP | Asian Correspondent

Comments

Log in or sign up to get involved in the conversation. It's quick and easy.

  • I love this part from the Wikipedia page: "The term originates from the Hebrew word "shibólet" (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain or, in different contexts, "stream, torrent". The modern usage 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." (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Shibboleth&oldid=480033596)

    (The stream/torrent part reminds me of the river, and the part about the grains reminds me of winnowing--which would be lovely if it weren't ultimately about slaying people.)

    March 14, 2012

  • "As her brain clouded over, as the memory of the views grew dim and the words of the book died away, she returned to her old shibboleth of nerves."

    A Room With A View

    November 21, 2011

  • The word as I understand it is used to mean a special kind of password, where not only must the word itself be spelt correctly but pronounced correctly, too. The Ephraimites didn't have "sh" in their dialect so could not pronounce the word correctly. You could take this further and say that the word therefore can mean not just "a test" but also "a token of power".

    December 15, 2009

  • Preferably someone willing to risk being torn apart by accidentally conjured Horrors.

    November 22, 2009

  • Yeah, that's the ticket! Or shtiggeth, as the case may be. Someone should invent the Lovecraft equivalent of Pig Latin.

    November 22, 2009

  • Well, shoggoth and Shub-Niggurath are also sh...th with a double consonant near the midpoint.

    November 22, 2009

  • Totally agree about the Lovecraft thing! Why is it so Lovecraftian?? Is there some other 'craft coinage that is similar?

    November 22, 2009

  • Steven Pinker in yesterday's NYTimes:

    Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual.

    January 23, 2009

  • I've also heard it used to mean general behaviors (such as wearing a baseball cap backwards for 80s hip-hop kids), and not just phrasing.

    December 27, 2007

  • It arises naturally, but it is used deliberately to distinguish between the groups.

    December 19, 2007

  • Yah, the WeirdNet definition is again a little off. I think a shibboleth isn't a deliberate difference or idiosyncrasy within a group, but something that arises naturally.

    December 19, 2007

  • I always imagined a shibboleth to be some kind of monument. A standing stone, a plinth, a cairn for the dead ancestors of the Shibbites. Alas, no :-(

    The Biblical passage reminds me of a kind of practical joke in Italy which involves offering a Coca-Cola to a Tuscan. Most Italians can pronounce Coca-Cola perfectly well but in the Tuscan dialect the pronunciation comes out as Hoha-hola which sounds hohahilarious.

    December 18, 2007

  • Got to quibble with the definition given at the top. It seems the extra sense of shibboleth (which comes out in the etymologic story) is that it is some idiosyncrasy of speech which enables one to tell one group from another.

    The careful parsing of terms in the abortion debate is a good example. The use of choice is a shibboleth of the pro-choice crowd. The distinction between baby and fetus is also a good example from the same context.

    December 18, 2007

  • I have encountered it used in the sense of examples of exaggerated fastidiousness in stylistic questions, like refusing to use a preposition to end a sentence with or to boldly attack split infinitives.

    December 18, 2007

  • I found it. The West Wing got it from the Book of Judges (though not directly, I suppose). There was a war between two Israelite groups, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites. The Gileadites held the passes across the Jordan River, and if someone wanted to pass they would ask him to say "Shibboleth", but the Ephraimites gave themselves away because they couldn't pronounce the "sh" properly. With dire consequences, I might add. Here's the passage:

    "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." – Judges, Ch. 12, vv. 5-6.

    December 9, 2007

  • I learnt it from The West Wing.

    December 9, 2007

  • it's biblical isn't it?

    December 9, 2007

  • This is an awesome word. I totally thought it was an H.P. Lovecraft creature when I first heard it.

    THAT MAKES IT EXTRA AWESOME

    December 9, 2007