Shibboleth

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A shibboleth (pronounced /ˈʃɪbəlɛθ/[1] or /ˈʃɪbələθ/[2]) is any distinguishing practice that is indicative of one's social or regional origin. It usually refers to features of language, and particularly to a word whose pronunciation identifies its speaker as being a member or not a member of a particular group.

Contents

Origin

The term originates from the Hebrew word "shibbóleth" (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain[3] or, in different contexts, "stream, torrent".[4][5] It derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ sound (as in shoe), from 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 refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test:

Judges 12:5-6, NJB

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. 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 also has 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.

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