Word: shibboleth

Pronunciation: SHI-bə-ləth

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Here’s another new word I learned from reading political articles. When defining the beliefs and principles of certain political parties, it’s easy to form stereotypes about how these groups think and behave. The problem is that once these stereotypes become common enough, we start using them to distinguish one group from the other, which can lead to some bitter and downright hostile arguments down the road. The lesson: it’s important to remember that we’re all human beings; our “shibboleths” shouldn’t define who we are!

A “shibboleth” is a belief, principle, or custom that distinguishes certain groups or classes of people, typically one that’s outdated or no longer important. The word arose in the mid 17th century and comes from the Hebrew noun šibbōleṯ, meaning “ear of corn”. The current sense of the word derives from a biblical account in which it was used as a test of nationality for its difficult pronunciation.

Though its modern use has nothing to do with its original definition, there’s an interesting story behind the word “shibboleth”: according to an account in the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible, after the Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites in battle, the former used this word to identify fleeing survivors among the latter, whose dialect resulted in the mispronunciation “sibboleth”. Today, the word is used to define repeatedly cited yet incorrect sayings or customs that distinguish in-groups from out-groups. If your characters are divided by antiquated beliefs and principles, you can easily use their “shibboleths” to color your story!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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