Shibboleth — not someone who predicts the future and not a Lovecraft monster

I’ve been swimming into the depths of political speech again lately, and that means I encounter interesting words and concepts that aren’t always common in everyday use. One of the words that crops up now and then is “shibboleth.”

I can’t confirm that I’ve ever had reason to put this word into print before today (and it’s certainly not one I use in casual conversation). That’s not a huge surprise: Oxford rates this word as appearing somewhere in the range of once in every 1 million to 10 million words (Band 4; Oxford bases its frequency score in turn on the Google Ngrams corpus since 1970 ).

Despite the unusual (and almost alien) nature of the word to an English speaker, it’s been around for a long time and describes a useful linguistic and social concept.

A shibboleth, narrowly, is a kind of linguistic password. It’s something that reveals something about the speaker’s identity. In the strict traditional sense, it’s used by someone in one group to recognize a person in another group.

Being no biblical scholar, I’ll accept the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s estimate that the Book of Judges, the part of the Bible where the word is first recorded, dates to around 550 BCE. Oxford dates the first use of shibboleth in English to a bible from 1382, with the word migrating into more figurative use by the first half of the 17th century.

The biblical origin of the word is pretty nasty when judged by modern standards: it recounts (some might say glorifies) an occasion when one tribe killed thousands of defeated enemy soldiers who were attempting to surreptitiously escape across the border after identifying them based on their pronunciation of a single word (“shibboleth”). According to the story, people of the two warring tribes pronounced the word differently, with those of one unable to make the “sh” sound and defaulting to “sibboleth.” The incident is in chapter 12 of the Book of Judges (start with chapter 11 for the whole story).

Historically, the idea appears to have been used repeatedly—and often with unpleasant results. One Wikipedia entry includes a list of known and believed incidents from history.

Less strictly, shibboleth is used to denote some verbal or behavioral indicator that flags someone as part of a group. Oxford’s definition extends this to include a particular manner of dress or the use of professional jargon. In the less strict sense, a shibboleth can be used to identify someone of the “in” group just as easily as someone in the “out” group.

While shibboleths work and are a useful idea, it’s not a foolproof concept. That same Wikipedia entry, for instance, also includes a list of US place names that are frequently used as shibboleths to sort locals from non-locals. That sort of knowledge can be learned at a distance these days. Having lived near some of those places, and having done business with people in several of the others, I’ve learned to change my default “outsider” pronunciation of them. I’m aware of a number of others, including the city I currently live in, Waltham, Massachusetts.

Regionalisms can also function as shibboleths—the Pittsburgh “yinz” and Rhode Island’s “what cheer?”—spring to mind. They don’t work in exactly the same way, but can be similarly revealing in how those not familiar with them react. Again, a little bit of knowledge and effort can often go a long way: I attended college in the South (the “shallow” South, not the Deep South) and within a few months had identified about half a dozen subtle differences in pronunciation that gave me away as “a Yankee” to those students who cared about such things. It didn’t take much to camouflage these “tells,” and that knowledge still serves me well in some social situations. To stress: this isn’t exactly the definition of a shibboleth, but I think the similarity of ideas helps demonstrate what we’re talking about.

In contemporary American culture, the far right in general and QAnon in particular are known for many shibboleths; that’s a deep rabbit hole not suitable for discussion here. To be completely fair, though, it’s pretty easy to find shibboleths in groups across whatever spectrum you’re looking at, whether that’s political, class, professional, or some shared interest.

Shibboleth is also the name of an open-source software product which is described as “one of the most widely used identity management systems in the world.” It strikes me as a curious name choice, considering the word origin and modern definition. But using shibboleth to mean “a kind of linguistic password” makes this use more understandable.


The references in the title of this post are to “sibyl,” a Greek-derived term for an oracle or prophetess, and “shoggoth,” a species of dangerous, intelligent amorphous creatures that appear in the story “At the Mountains of Madness.”

Posted in Language, Words | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When is a word not a word?

The question should be: Is there any validity to a claim that “a word isn’t a word?”

Alright, you’re asking yourself: What’s got his goat this time?

It’s not so dramatic as that! But, because I spend (waste?) some portion of my time sifting through the seemingly infinite pages of grammar and usage advice on the internet, I frequently encounter things that interest me. Or annoy me. Or make me laugh, or cry…or sigh in despair. Or some simultaneous combination of all of the above.

During this unending wandering, I recently came across a persnickety article that insisted that “impactful” is not a word. This sort of definitive declaration always gets my attention. I’m not (usually) someone who supports a position that involves absolutes, and that’s especially (but not universally) true when it comes to definitions.

Click for more impact!

Posted in Language, Words | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Microaggressions in Editing?

An interesting headline crossed my desk from a couple of different directions recently. Here’s the source story by Crystal Shelley over at ACES, if you’d like to give it a quick read before continuing (it’s short but it’s not necessary to read it to follow this post).

My initial reaction to the headline—before reading the story—was “really?” Feel free to attribute a healthy helping of sarcasm to how you read my comment.

But that reaction lasted only seconds. Because even without reading the story, I knew exactly what the author would be talking about, and I totally understood the point. More importantly, I agree with it.

Don’t execute a microaggression by closing the tab. Just click here.

Posted in Culture, Language, Things you should know, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting Racism and Racialism

Every once in awhile something drops into the mailbag from out of the blue which leaves me scratching my head. It might be because I have no idea why I received it, or maybe it’s productive confusion over a reader who asks a question with great depth and nuance.

Or maybe, as last week, it’s befuddlement over the pure dripping ignorance (with a helping of hatefulness) expressed by the correspondent.

Here’s the text of that message in full. It’s unedited: the misspellings, idiosyncratic punctuation, borderline gibberish, and coded hate speech are unaltered.


joshua adams <adams85@mail.com>
Mon 1/25/2021 4:38 AM
To whom it may concern,, I came across an online article ‘you’ published describing the difference between ‘racist’ & ‘racialist’; as I began reading I was assuming it’d be an intelligent, incite on literal definition that would clarify confusion between 2 related topics but then I came to view a hodgepodge of malarkey….in otherwords the article is 1 of THE most bogus asinine synopses I’ve ever seen for public absorption. Do you realize someone might actually believe nonsense like that & then go on to relay more lies to the already indoctrinated youth of the current?? Very apparent to me that the author of this 💩 is most likely a leftist dolt who is another grain in the bale of Red hay that’s contributing to the ongoing decline.. I suppose you would regard the (j) a.d.l as a credited database of ‘hate’ as well?? The zog is far beyond being ignored in the 20th century…if you receive this email Please help me understand what you Really meant & that you didn’t purposely mean to correlate 2 completely different areas. Thanks.j


This references a post from 2016. It had been awhile since I’d looked at that one, so I went back to read it to see if I could understand what this guy was going on about. Might I have totally missed the mark—did I purely editorialize instead of providing useful information about the words’ definitions, their etymology, and their practical use? Stranger things have happened.

But…nope. Four and a half years on, that post holds up pretty well (better than some others!). It defines the words, provides some history on their (very modern) origins, and offers a fairly compact summary of why the words are both intertwined and dangerously hateful.

I considered (but only briefly) whether I should redact the name and email address of the above correspondent. I have not. My thinking on this is simple: if you choose to be an offensive racist and publicly share those thoughts, as this person has done, I will do nothing to shield your identity from public view. You, sir, are a hateful creep and I am not the least bit hesitant to note this. And what’s with the poop emoji—are you angling to develop your brand as “the approachable and lighthearted Nazi?” Good luck with that niche marketing.

I’m not sure what the scare quotes around ‘you’ are meant to indicate (“an online article ‘you’ published”): my real name is included at the bottom of every page on this site. I’m sorry that this wasn’t clear enough to you, but if I’ve learned one thing about racists it’s that reading comprehension isn’t a top priority.

Most likely, the identity “joshua adams” is fake, though. For what it’s worth, a very quick search revealed that this user has previously posted on a self-described neo-Nazi…excuse me: “alt-right”…music web site. Considering the numerous overt and coded racist and anti-Semitic references in his letter, that didn’t come as a shock. Another location he turned up at was a Russian YouTube clone, seeking a chemical treatment to lighten a tattoo. You can’t make this stuff up—and I’m glad I don’t have to because I might not do as good a job.

As to “Mr. Adams'” direct question:

Yes, I did indeed “purposely mean to correlate” the words racist and racialist. They are not two distinct ideas, as my earlier post explained: they are two sides of the same ignorant and hateful coin. Racialist is a White supremacist code word, one of those many dangerous little on-ramps into a dark world of hate. “Oh no,” says the would-be fascist. “We’re not racists: we’re only racialists who believe that racial differences are real/physiological/biological/god-created and need to be taken into account in how people are treated. That’s not racist, it’s scientific.” Please: give me and every other thinking human being a break from your racist garbage.

Don’t bother responding, either in comments or via email. This site has pretty good spam filters, so chances are very high that any additional garbage you send my way will be immediately sent—unread—into the digital woodchipper.

One of the beauties of being a privately operated site is that I have no obligation to give your hate speech a public forum. I’ve only posted this single time to highlight the ugly truth that people like you exist, but that most others don’t tolerate your ideas.

And, if it wasn’t already obvious, to make fun of you. But there will be no dialogue: you’re “one and done.”

Posted in Requested, Things you should know, Words | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vocabulary for Difficult Times

2020 was a rough year. The first week of 2021 brought more unsettling news: near record daily (and record weekly average) COVID-19 cases; record COVID-19 deaths; record levels of self-serving behavior from Republican politicians; and what was generally reported as an insurrection or a coup attempt, in the form of a riot and mob assault on the US Capitol in Washington, DC, which left five dead and more than a dozen injured.

I suppose we can look on the bright side: we haven’t been hit by any natural disasters (yet).

Click for help labelling what we’re dealing with.

Posted in Language, Things you should know, Words | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment