Hebrew, šibbōlet, ear of grain or flowing stream. The common meaning of shibboleth, "test-word" or "criterion," has its origin in Jgs 12.4–6. In the 11th century b.c., a group of Ephraimites sought to escape a band of Galaadites by attempting to cross the Jordan back into Palestine. The fugitives pretended to be Galaadites when they were halted at the Jordan. However, they betrayed themselves by their inability to pronounce the chosen test-word in the Gileadite manner. The telltale element was the initial sound of the word shibboleth. The accepted theory is that the dialectal peculiarity was with the West-Jordanian Ephraimites who used the Amorrite "s" instead of the Canaanite "sh." E. A. Speiser, however, believes that the dialectal peculiarity was with the Galaadites in whose dialect the initial sound in shibboleth was "th" instead of "sh." Thus, not only the Ephraimites, but Judeans or Galileans, had they been in the same predicament, would have likewise betrayed themselves. Whichever theory is accepted, the result was the same: the Ephraimites failed the phonetic test and execution followed, although the alleged number of victims is probably exaggerated.
Bibliography: e. a. speiser, "The Shibboleth Incident (Judges 12:6)," The Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 85 (February 1942) 10–13. r. marcus, "The Word Šibboleth Again," ibid. 87 (October 1942) 39.
1. A peculiarity of pronunciation that indicates someone's regional and/or social origins, such as toity-toid thirty-third, serving to identify someone from Brooklyn.
2. A style, expression, custom, or mannerism that identifies an enemy or someone disliked or different because of background, community, occupation, etc.: for example, extreme political slogans referred to as Fascist/Commie shibboleths. Usually, the disapproval runs one way, higher social Gileadites detecting and rejecting lower social Ephraimites, but the reverse is also possible, as when in Britain, in assessing the vowel sounds in can't dance, speakers who say ‘cahn't dahnce’ are often dismissed as toffs and snobs. See MARKED AND UNMARKED TERMS, STEREOTYPE.
shib·bo·leth / ˈshibəli[unvoicedth]; -ˌle[unvoicedth]/ • n. 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: the party began to break with the shibboleths of the left.