AskDefine | Define shibboleth

Dictionary Definition



1 a favorite saying of a sect or political group [syn: motto, slogan, catchword]
2 a manner of speaking that is distinctive of a particular group of people

User Contributed Dictionary



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”, because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan.’ (New Jerusalem Bible)




  1. A word, especially seen as a test, to distinguish someone as belonging to a particular nation, class, profession etc.
  2. A slogan, jargon word, or catchphrase closely associated with a particular group and not used very much, or at all, outside of it. Can also apply to ideas, customs, and uses of language.
  3. A common or longstanding belief or custom associated with a particular group; truism, platitude
    It's about time we abandoned the bourgeois shibboleth that earning money makes you a better person.
  4. A common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.

Extensive Definition

Shibboleth () is any language usage indicative of one's social or regional origin, or more broadly, any practice that identifies members of a group.


The term originates from the Hebrew word "shibboleth" (), 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" It derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish members of a group (the Ephraimites) whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ sound (as in shoe) from members of a group (the Gileadites) whose dialect did include such a sound.
In the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim (around 13701070 BC), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river's fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these disguised refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test:

Modern usage

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. Christians might have been familiar with the Biblical story and directly inspired by it, or might have independently invented the same method under similar circumstances. Modern researchers use the term "Shibboleth" for all such usages, whether or not the people involved were using it themselves.
Today, in the English language, a shibboleth has also a wider meaning, referring to any "in-crowd" 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 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. For example, people who regularly use words like "pr0n" and "filk" in conversation are likely members of computer culture or science fiction fandom, respectively. Shibboleths can also be customs or practices, such as male circumcision, or a signifier, such as a semiotic.
Cultural touchstones and shared experience can also be shibboleths of a sort. For example, people about the same age tend to have the same memories of popular songs, television shows, and events from their formative years. 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.

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. For example, during the WWII Battle of the Bulge, American soldiers used knowledge of baseball to determine if others were fellow Americans or if they were German infiltrators in American uniform. Some shibboleths are jokes.
During World War II, some United States soldiers in the Pacific theater used the word "lollapalooza" as a shibboleth to verbally test people who were hiding and unidentified, on the premise that Japanese people often pronounce the letter L as R, and that the word is an American colloquialism that even a foreign person fairly well-versed in American English would probably mispronounce and/or be unfamiliar with. In George Stimpson's A Book about a Thousand Things, the author notes that, in the war, Japanese spies would often approach checkpoints posing as American or 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."
shibboleth in Czech: Šibolet
shibboleth in German: Schibboleth
shibboleth in Spanish: Schibboleth
shibboleth in Esperanto: Ŝiboleto
shibboleth in French: Shibboleth (mot hébreu)
shibboleth in Western Frisian: Sjibbolet
shibboleth in Hebrew: שיבולת (אמצעי זיהוי)
shibboleth in Korean: 쉽볼렛
shibboleth in Icelandic: Sjibbólet
shibboleth in Italian: Shibboleth
shibboleth in Dutch: Sjibbolet
shibboleth in Portuguese: Xibolete
shibboleth in Russian: Шибболет
shibboleth in Slovak: Šibolet
shibboleth in Finnish: Šibbolet
shibboleth in Swedish: Schibbolet
shibboleth in Turkish: Şibbolet

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

banality, bromide, byword, catch phrase, catchword, cliche, countersign, cry, fad word, jargon, open sesame, password, pet expression, phrase, platitude, prosaicism, prosaism, rubber stamp, secret grip, slogan, tag, tessera, token, truism, vogue word, watchword
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