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What Is a Shibboleth?

Find out what it means when a word is described as a shibboleth.

By
Mignon Fogarty,

What Is a Shibboleth?

People can be as passionate about language as they are about religion, and sometimes the two intersect. For example, linguists sometimes describe a word as a shibboleth.

Saying something is a shibboleth means the word tags you as a member of a certain group or class. For example, if you say irregardless, it tags you as someone who is poorly educated or doesn't use proper language.

Shibboleth is a Hebrew word, and its linguistic meaning stems from the Biblical story of the Gileadites, who used the word to identify Ephraimites. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the "sh" sound, so shibboleth came out sounding wrong, making them instantly identifiable.

 

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