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.”