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

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.