The word shibboleth (/shib-?-leth/ has come to mean any word, phrase, pronunciation, or mannerism that one group uses to classify members of another group as outsiders or enemies. One speaks of social shibboleths, political shibboleths, and religious shibboleths.

The most recent definition of shibboleth in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is

a moral formula held tenaciously and unreflectingly, especially a prohibitive one; a taboo.

In ancient Hebrew, shibboleth was just an ordinary word meaning “flood, stream,” or “ear of corn.” It acquired the sense of a test word for telling friend from enemy from its use by Jephthah the Gileadite against his enemies the Ephraimites.

The Gileadites took possession of fords along the Jordan river where they intercepted the fleeing Ephraimites. Since there was nothing about the appearance of the Ephraimites to distinguish them from the Gileadites, some other way of identifying them was needed. Both groups spoke Hebrew, but with different dialects. The Gileadites pronounced shibboleth with a “sh” sound, but the Ephraimites pronounced the sh as “s.” Jephthah’s men asked anyone who wanted to cross the Jordan to say “shibboleth.” If the man couldn’t pronounce the “sh” sound,

they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. –Judges 12:6, KJV

Various dialects serve as shibboleths between different segments of the US population, a good reason for learning to speak and write a form of Standard English.

3 Responses

  1. I feel that rather than profiling someone, this is more of a technique to employ by authorities who may need to determine the veracity of individuals.
    Normally, it would be used in a discreet way. Otherwise, the usefulness of the technique would be invalidated.

  2. Talk about profiling, wow! The Israelis still profile quite effectively. You come to appreciate the fact that they use profiling to sort out the people most likely to be terrorists.

    One comes to appreciate the way Israelis handle the screening of travelers through the use of competing private security firms.

    Even though Israel is hated by the vast majority of the inhabitants of the countries surrounding their very tiny country, they have an almost perfect record of preserving the safety of travelers by land, air, and sea, coming into and going out of Israel. Once you have passed their security scrutiny, you know you are in good, safe company in your travels.

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