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Word Interest: Shibboleth

The word shibboleth means a defining feature of a group that sets the group apart from other groups. It’s an interesting word that can be used in multiple different ways, and so it often finds its way into poems. The word comes from the Hebrew שִׁבֹּלֶת which has the twin meaning of an ear of corn or a stream in flood. In the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible, pronunciation of the word “shibolet” is used as a test of the identity of two rival groups, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites. By extension the word has taken on the notion of a defining feature of a group. The literal meaning of the word in modern day use is a word whose pronunciation can be used to detect where someone is from. More generally, the term can be extended to mean words that define someone’s group in a wider way. This is where it gets a bit more controversial. For example, the “par” in transparency may be pronounced to rhyme with “bear” or with the phoneme “bar” in barrier. Some people would argue that is a generational variation, others might argue it is to do with the class, and others that it is entirely arbitrary. In that way, the term develops a slightly pejorative implication of an oversimplifying test, more like a taboo or a superstition. The Oxford Bok of Foreign Words & Phrases notes two sub-definitions of the word Shibboleth: a distinguishing trait of a group of people, for example, a way of dressing, a custom, or a habit; or a characteristic long-standing formula, idea or phrase that defines a particular group. This then extends to have less positive shades of meaning, so that a shibboleth can be a slogan or catchword or notion that is often held unreflectingly. So in the UK it might be argued that a conservative party shibboleth is that immigration is somehow a bad thing and that the country would be better off economically if the numbers of immigrants were reduced. Or to be balanced, a Labour party shibboleth my be that employers will violate workers’ rights unless there are strong unions to challenge them. In both the examples above, the groups concerned would most likely argue that these are not “shibboleths” but are valid beliefs that represent the actual state of affairs. That is why the word is complex, and interesting; it’s not a word that sits still. Rather like an ear of corn, it blows with the wind. Rather like a stream in flood, its flow is determined partly by the landscape through which it runs.

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