What Is a Shibboleth?

A shibboleth is a word or phrase you use to identify someone who is or isn't part of your group. Does your group use shibboleths?

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
Episode #852

A few of you asked what I meant a couple of weeks ago when I said that the pronunciation of Berlin, Connecticut, is a shibboleth.

A shibboleth is a word or phrase you can use to identify someone who is or isn't part of your group. 

The origin of 'shibboleth'

The word "shibboleth" itself was an old Hebrew word meaning both "ear of corn" and "flood or stream." The way we use it today in the in-group-out-group way comes from the Biblical story of the Gileadites, who used the word to identify and kill Ephraimites. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the "sh" sound, so "shibboleth" came out sounding wrong, like "sibboleth," making them instantly identifiable as they were trying to cross enemy lines.

Out-group shibboleths

Militaries and mobs have used pronunciation differences many times over the years to identify enemies or outsiders. For example, in 1937, as many as 35,000 Haitian immigrants were killed in the Dominican Republic on order of the dictator, Rafael Trujillo, in what is called the Parsley Massacre. The story is ultimately unconfirmed, but it's called the Parsley Massacre because Dominicans and Haitians pronounce the word for "parsley" differently, and supposedly the Dominican troops held up a piece of parsley and killed anyone who pronounced it the Haitian way. 

In a less violent example, just like people in Berlin, Connecticut, can identify an outsider when we call the city "Berlin," when I lived in Nevada, when we heard people pronounce the state name "Nev-ah-dah," we knew they weren't locals. Houston Street in New York is another one I've messed up in the past, pronouncing it like the Texas city, Houston.

In-group shibboleths

Groups can also use shibboleths to help identify people who are in the same group in an under-the-radar way. For example, members of Alcoholics Anonymous can refer to each other as "friends of Bill W." referring to the group's founder, Bill Wilson. 

Years ago, when I was on a cruise, I saw multiple evening meetings on the activity schedule for friends of Bill W., and I didn't know what it was, so I thought, "Wow, this guy Bill must really be something to have his friends getting together so often." I actually wondered if it was part of a funeral or something. Ah, those poor people. They really miss their friend Bill.

So that's a shibboleth—any pronunciation, word, or phrase you can use to identify someone as part of some kind of group or class.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.