Taken from the edit page of Times of India (Apr 4, 2011)
‘The only shibboleth the West has is science’
a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, esp. a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.
ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Hebrew šibbōle t meaning ‘ear of corn,’ used as a test of nationality by its difficult pronunciation.
Connections and Story of the word:
Thousands of years ago, two Semitic tribes, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, fought a great battle. The Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites, and set up a blockade across the Jordan River to catch the fleeing Ephraimites who were trying to get back to their territory. Gileadites not willing to do so, had decided a way to filter the people coming in. They asked all their sentries to ask the visitors to pronounce ‘Shibboleth’. The Ephraimites, who had no sh sound in their language, pronounced the word with an s and were thereby unmasked as the enemy and slaughtered.
The relevant information can also be found from the Book of Judges(Bible written originally in Hebrew).
Recently the tactic had been re-employed by the American soldiers fighting in the pacific. The Japanese soldiers were successfully infiltrating American lines, simply by learning the password of that particular day. This kept happening until one smart American officer played the same old trick in a new outfit. Knowing that the Japanese could not pronounce the letter ‘l’, he ordered the password of the day to be set as ‘Llallapaloosa’, anybody who could not pronounce it was ordered to be tagged as Japanese. The closest the Japanese could get was “RraRaparoosa’. Such tests based on language skills and speech skills are truly ‘Shibboleths’.
A shibboleth is one specific phenomenon involving observing use of language of “out-group” people. It is a linguistic marker that is characteristic of members of a group, which is used by another group to identify members of the first group. Such identification typically has bad consequences for the members thus identified.
Today however, the word has extended meanings. It may mean a repeated saying (platitude, cliche), a word or a phrase used by adherents of a party or sect(catchword or slogan). All these variations are aptly illustrated in the following:
What the world needs today are not the shibboleths of democracy but its dynamic practice.
Somewhere between shibboleth and principle, there is a rule that reputable institutions are not allowed to call a person a liar.
The alleged failings of the Honor Court have generated discussion of late, but the shibboleth of honor has unfortunately attracted little attention.
1. ‘We dip into past’; Pg 298; All About words By Maxwell Nuremberg and Morris Rosenbaum
2. Honor is shameful; www.thedailytarheel.com
3. The story of Shibboleth; www.ruf.rice.edu