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Which side are you on?

"And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me go over,’ the men of Gilead said to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ When he said, ‘No,’ they said to him, ‘Then say shibboleth,’ and he said, ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it right; then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites."

The 12th chapter of Judges gives us a Hebrew word, shibboleth, which means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "stream in flood" or "ear of corn" — more likely the former, in this context. English, always ready to appropriate words from other languages and cultures, happily took it on. It can mean either a characteristic of a particular group of people, or a catchword or marker adopted by one group to divide its members from outsiders.

Given the human proclivity to choose up sides, it was inevitable that language, like skin color, dress and other markers, would be put to the use of differentiating Them from Us. Pronunciation, as in Jephtha’s test for the Ephraimites, is one. When I was growing up in eastern Kentucky, I had very few traces of the Southern Mountain accent that is the dominant regional dialect. ("Why, John Early, you talk just like somebody from up North.") One of the things that hurt Lyndon Johnson in following John F. Kennedy into the presidency is that Kennedy’s Boston accent had sounded polished and sophisticated to the public, and Johnson’s Texas accent made him sound like some kind of a rube.

Written language is full of test cases as well. As I’ve suggested in previous postings, the scorn for hopefully among the usage mavens of the 1970s and 1980s reflected class values more than usage, hopefully having had an extensive past as a sentence adverb. Contact as a verb had been scorned in the 1940s and 1950s as a vulgar usage common among advertising executives — Not Our Sort, you know.

Writers and editors may well be unconscious of the shibboleths that they make use of. And even when they are aware of them, it can be a difficult point to decide whether to abandon them or to observe them to avoid irritating their adherents. (Of the two previous sentences, the first ended with a preposition, and the second began with a coordinating conjunction, violating a couple of long-held shibboleths.) Assuming that the shibboleth has no substantial foundation in clarity, grammar, usage or meaning, the choice is whether to humor a self-identified elite or to challenge it.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:37 PM | | Comments (3)


Here's an idea for a future post: words bandied about by educated, hyperliterate people but peculiar to the unlettered masses. I think the word "shibboleth" qualifies.

And this would be very helpful in the online era: links to the dictionary definitions of such words.

Thanks, John, for explaining what a "shibboleth" is and the history of the word. Whenever I see or hear "shibboleth" in the news media, it's almost always used incorrectly -- usually to mean sacred cow or core belief, with the idea of separation largely lost.

Just a quick Internet check reveals:

"... the Tories' unerring marksmanship in exploding one smug Liberal shibboleth after another." (from the London [Ont.] Free Press)

"...the implementation of the Kyoto accords, the great shibboleth of the global-warming lobby," (from the New York Sun)

"The notion of flinging money at faltering schools as a formulaic solution is a sacred and irresistible shibboleth." (from the Free-Lance Star of Fredericksburg, Va.)

And a correct one:

"The one-hour inter-island ferry crossing between the isle of Berneray ... and the south of Harris is the newest shibboleth of life in the Western Isles. Attitude to the ferry ... is the test of acceptance." (from The Herald of Glasgow)

I always changed "hopefully" to "hopedly." Bwahahahahaha!!!!!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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