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Have you ever heard the word “shibboleth” [‘ʃɪb(ə)leθ]? What is the meaning of this word?

The word “shibboleth” means
1) something that is difficult for pronunciation and which may reveal foreign accent;
2) certain trait of linguistic or nonverbal behaviour which reveals a person who belongs to a certain social group or profession (the second meaning makes it practically synonymous to a jargon or slang).

What about the origins* of this strange word? From the etymological perspective the word “shibboleth” is very interesting. Its origins in English can be found in the Bible. Here is the passage where it is mentioned:

“And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand” (Judges 12:5-6 KJV).

This passage tells us about an ancient battle. The party who won the battle controlled certain passages over the river Jordan. The fleeing people were asked to pronounce “shibboleth”. Depending on how they pronounced the word they were recognized wither as friends or enemies.

Thus, the origin of the word “shibboleth” is found in the Bible. It was used as a way to determine the background of the people who were asked to pronounce it. Nowadays, however, the word can be used in everyday speech to refer to certain linguistic features which reveal something about the speaker (either that he is not a local person or belong to a certain group of people who use such vocabulary).

* The study of origins of words is conducted within a linguistic branch called etymology.

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