Jul 22 2009


Pronounced SHIB-ol-eth. A shibboleth is a word, phrase, or mannerism that a group of people uses as a test to see if other people are members of that group.

It might also be a joke. For example:

There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those that understand binary code, and those that don’t.

If you are waiting for me to tell you the other 8 kinds of people, then it is clear that you fall into the second group.

During World War II a shibboleth that American soldiers used to determine whether someone was Japanese or not was to ask them to say, “lollapalooza.”

The word is Hebrew, and means either “kernel of grain” or “brook,” depending on who you ask; obviously neither has anything to do with passwords. The word’s current use comes from chapter 12 in the book of Judges.

What happens is a bunch of jerks from the tribe of Ephraim come to visit Jephthah (who has just successfully defeated the Ammonites) at his home in Gilead. The Ephraimites insult the Gidealites and threaten to murder Jephthah, and in response Jephthah gathers his army. Being a rather astute student of history, he utilizes a tactic seen years before when the Israelites fought against the nation of Moab (recorded in Judges 3): they sieze the fords of Jordan, preventing their enemies’ escape.

Jephthah then set up a checkpoint, where he asked all passers-through to say the word, “shibboleth,” as he knew that Ephraimites pronounced the word, “sibboleth.” The Ephraimites lost 42,000 men that day.

Some Bible scholars have decried Jephthah’s actions as wicked, but I see it differently: if you bring 42,000 people to someone’s house and make a death threat, you shouldn’t be alarmed when they take your threat seriously. Also, you might not want to threaten someone known to be an effective warrior and general.

While not technically accurate, the English poet John Milton summed it up the most eloquently:

“Without reprieve, adjudged to death, for want of well-pronouncing shibboleth.”

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