What Is a Shibboleth?

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

Mignon Fogarty
1-minute read

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.


The Grammar DevotionalGet more tips like this in The Grammar Devotional:

 Print: Amazon, Barnes & NoblePowell’s

E-book: Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Apple iBook

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

The Quick and Dirty Tips Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To exercise your choices about cookies, please see Cookies and Online Tracking.