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shibboleth

[shib-uh-lith, ‐leth]
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noun
  1. a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons.
  2. a slogan; catchword.
  3. a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.

Origin of shibboleth

< Hebrew shibbōleth literally, freshet, a word used by the Gileadites as a test to detect the fleeing Ephraimites, who could not pronounce the sound sh (Judges 12:4–6)
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

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British Dictionary definitions for shibboleth

shibboleth

noun
  1. a belief, principle, or practice which is commonly adhered to but which is thought by some people to be inappropriate or out of date
  2. a custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to, or as a stumbling block to becoming a member of, a particular social class, profession, etc

Word Origin

C14: from Hebrew, literally: ear of grain; the word is used in the Old Testament by the Gileadites as a test word for the Ephraimites, who could not pronounce the sound sh
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for shibboleth

n.

late 14c., the Hebrew word shibboleth, meaning "flood, stream," also "ear of corn;" in Judges xii:4-6. It was the password used by the Gileadites to distinguish their own men from fleeing Ephraimites, because Ephraimites could not pronounce the -sh- sound. Hence the figurative sense of "watchword" (first recorded 1630s), which evolved by 1862 to "outmoded slogan still adhered to." A similar test-word was cicera "chick pease," used by the Italians to identify the French (who could not pronounce it correctly) during the massacre called the Sicilian Vespers (1282).

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

shibboleth in Culture

shibboleth

[(shib-uh-luhth, shib-uh-leth)]

In the Old Testament, shibboleth was a password used by the Israelites. It was chosen because their enemies could not pronounce it.

Note

By extension, a shibboleth is an often-repeated slogan. It also means an arbitrary test to prove membership in a group.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.