What's A Shibboleth? Origin And Meaning Of The Biblical Word Test

Historical Facts | May 30, 2021

Antique Bible texts in exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

"Shibboleth," when translated directly from Hebrew, means "the head of a stalk of grain," but in English, this word usually refers to a phrase, pronunciation, symbol, or custom signifying that a person is or isn't part of a certain group. Basically, it's something only someone "in the know" would know, and throughout history, it has been a useful tool for rooting out enemies or secretly signaling to allies.

Why Do They Call It A Shibboleth?

The word's transition from wheat stalks to passwords has roots in the Hebrew Bible's Book of Judges, specifically the story of Judge Jepthat of Gilead, who fought back against the Tribe of Ephraim when they attempted to invade. While they successfully thwarted the attack, the Gileadites weren't about to allow the survivors to hightail it home like nothing happened. Instead, they tracked them down the Jordan River, but the men they found claimed to be from Gilead. Knowing that Ephraimites speak with a different dialect, the Gileadites asked them to say the word "shibboleth" to prove their origin. When the Ephraimites pronounced the word "sibboleth" (without the "sh" sound), they knew they were lying and killed them all.

Contemporary depiction of the Bruges Matins on the Oxford Chest. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Historical Shibboleths

Since then, shibboleths have proven useful to identify both friend and foe. One of the most violent cases was in 14th-century Belgium on a night known at the Matins of Bruges during the Franco-Flemmish War, when a Flemish militia went out into the night to hunt for the French, breaking into homes and sticking pikes in people's faces. When awakened, the militia instructed their target to repeat the words schild en vriend ("shield and friend"), a phrase whose pronunciation is particularly difficult for any non-native speaker. The militia killed the 2,000 men who said the phrase incorrectly.

One the other side of the world in the Dominican Republic, dictator Rafael Trujillo presented sprigs of parsley to suspected Haitian migrants and asked them what it was. The slight difference in Haitian pronunciation of the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, led to the brutal slaughter of over 10,000 men, women, and children in what's become known as the "Parsley Massacre."

However, not all shibboleths have led to such mayhem and death. Christians have long used the ichthys (that thing that looks like a fish on a lot of people's bumper stickers) as a shibboleth. In the early days of the religion, when they were sometimes persecuted as a minority group within the Roman Empire, Christian travelers drew the top line of the fish, knowing that if the other person finished the image, they were both of the same faith.

Ichthys as adopted as a Christian symbol. (Fibonacci/Wikimedia Commons)

Modern Shibboleths

Shibboleths remained alive and well throughout the 20th century and beyond. During World War II, gay service members referred to each other as "friends of Dorothy" (the Wizard Of Oz character), which was effective until higher-ups began to wonder just who this Dorothy was that everyone was talking about. Suspecting some kind of conspiracy, the Naval Investigative Service launched a full inquiry until they realized they were looking for Judy Garland. Today, the shibboleth "friend of Bill W." helps members of Alcoholics Anonymous identify each other in public to avoid mentioning the organization and the social stigma related to alcoholism.

Tags: bible | common expressions | historical facts

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