Do you have any shibboleths it might be wise to get rid of?
A shibboleth is a long-standing belief or principle that all your friends and family would regard as wrong, out-dated, or no longer important. Like BBC news readers having to read any news bulletin after 8pm wearing a dinner jacket – on the radio! This practice has long gone, and even wearing a tie on TV has started to look a bit old fashioned.
Shibboleths abound in English grammar, although many are falling by the wayside. Who now worries about the split infinitive in ‘to boldly go…’? And who writes letters to the newspapers (or bloggers) if they spot a sentence starting with an ‘and’ or a ‘but’?
Shibboleth can also mean a phrase or use of language that distinguishes one group of people from another. In fact it first came into use in the English language to mean a word that a foreigner finds difficult to pronounce, such as ‘naphthalene’ (the stuff that goes into mothballs), or the French word for you, ‘tu,’ which flummoxes most non-native French speakers
Like many words in the English language it is foreign in origin, being Hebrew for an ear of corn. According to the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, when the Ephraimites were beaten in battle by the Gileadites, the Gileadites set up blockades by the river to stop their defeated enemies escaping. (Judges X11, 6)
Members of the two tribes looked similar and the only way to tell them apart was to get anyone crossing the river to say ‘shibboleth.’ Apparently no Ephraimite was able to make the ‘sh’ sound, so was promptly put to death.
To me, the link between the meaning for shibboleth in Hebrew, and its original meaning in English is obvious. But if anyone can tell me how it came to mean an out-dated belief, please get in touch!
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*April 23rd being Shakespeare’s birthday (and the anniversary of his death), you may like to try one of my Shakespeare themed short stories: A Midsummer Day’s Dream, Journey to the Fair Mountain, Chains of Magic, The Ghost Queen. All published by http://www.solsticepublishing.com, and available on Amazon Books for about £1/ $1.