• shibboleth •
Pronunciation: shi-bê-lith • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A word, phrase, or pronunciation of a word that identifies a member of a group and is used to distinguish members of a specific group from outsiders. 2. A commonplace phrase or saying.
Notes: Shibboleths are first and foremost passwords that the enemy finds difficult or impossible to pronounce. In World War II the Germans often used Streichholzschächtelchen "small box of matches" to detect non-Germans. The Czechs used a tongue-twister, strc prst skrz krk "stick a finger through the throat". Do you see how the non-Czech might stumble on the pronunciation of this phrase?
In Play: Shibboleths in their original sense are most useful during war: "After escaping captivity, Tuttle worried that the Americans would ask him a shibboleth on US baseball, about which he knew next to nothing." These days shibboleth is more often used to refer to a cliché or watchword used as a standard argument for or against something: "Harry used that old shibboleth that 'time is money' as an excuse to cut the office lunch break down to twenty minutes."
Word History: This English word used to be Hebrew shibboleth, which means both "flood, stream" and "ear of corn". But the meaning of this word is irrelevant; its pronunciation is the crucial issue here. In Judges xii: 4-6 shibboleth was the password used by the Gileadites to distinguish their own men from the enemy Ephraimites, because the Ephraimites had no [sh] in their language and pronounced the word sibboleth. (The shibboleth for our gratitude today is 'William Hupy', the name of our friend and long-time member of the Alpha Agora who suggested we run this Good Word.)