Shibboleth

Every now and then I recall an unusual word. It is generally a word that I once knew, but also a word that I haven’t seen in quite awhile. I suspect that there are books and articles that have all these words, but they are lost in the “garage library”, and I haven’t seen or read them in thirty years.

You can get a little confused after thirty years. Take the word “shibboleth”. It wasn’t a word that I read or heard recently. If i had I might have used context to remember what it means. By the way, using context is sketchy, maybe the author doesn’t really know the root of the word.

The word wasn’t read or heard, it just popped into my head, and seconds later all I had was a big question mark. Shibboleth? What was it? A Jewish dagger? A tower of stone? No, that didn’t seem right. There was some sort of negative context. A pejorative of some sort. Shibboleth? Yeah, clearly a Hebrew root.

I was stumped, so I naturally did the reasonably thing, I asked my wife. No help there, she had the same quizzical look that I had. She had once known this word but now it was lost.

I really would like to know if certain words, perfectly good words, just go out of favor. Is this the first stage of a word going “archaic”. Well, I can’t allow that. I will bring it back as a perfectly good, valid, word. As soon as I find out the meaning.

When the wife does not help, I generally turn to the dictionary. Oh, how thankful, it even had a spell check feature because I was looking up something that I wasn’t certain I was spelling right.

And there it was! I read the primary definition and it wasn’t anything close to what I remember. A shibboleth is something that a particular group of people use as a bonding element. Veterans share war stories, Scots/Irish like bagpipes. A shibboleth is a shared item or tradition, of a group of people.

So where is the negative? Well, someone once wrote about a tradition that they felt was no longer valid, or important and suddenly a new context was given to the word. How unfair! It was a perfectly good word that changed because of some critic who had an opinion.

Then I read on, and found a darker side of the word from it’s Hebrew root. There was a war between Ephraim and Gilead (Judges 12), and Gilead won. The stragglers from Ephraim we’re trying to cross the River Jordan to go home. Gilead controlled the fords and asked each man to pronounce “shibboleth”. In the dialect of Ephraim the word sounded like “Sibboleth” . Somehow the “H” disappeared. Over 42,000 men were killed. Tough times in the Old Testament.

I don’t know that I ever remembered that background. I’ve read Judges several times, and I have no memory of “shibboleth”. This is another separate issue that I need to resolve.

So how do I use shibboleth in the future. Even though it probably is unfair, I think I will use it to describe an outdated tradition that no longer has meaning.

Hey, shibboleth is almost a shibboleth.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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