Shibboleth: a longstanding belief or principle that many people regard as outdated or no longer important: “the conflict challenged a series of military shibboleths.”

COED[1]

Stereotype: a widely held but oversimplified idea of the typical characteristics of a person or thing. [V]erb: [to] view or represent someone or something as a stereotype.

COED[2]

Then they said 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.

The Bible (Authorized Version, King James, 1611)[3]

[J. the Jokester called the other day in a bit of a panic. His afternoon nap had turned into a nightmare. He dreamt he had returned to D.C., which was bad enough, and was having lunch with one of his former adversaries, a prominent lawyer there. It was all perfectly innocent, he said; all he wanted to do was catch up on the local gossip. So the dream was odd from the get-go. Why travel that far for something you don’t need? Why go there when a phone call might do? Why invite someone you don’t like to lunch? Also, why did he agree to come? Prominent lawyers don’t socialize, except with an agenda.

  • In D.C all lawyers are prominent, except the Government ones; you can see that from their hourly rates. [Actually, the last I heard Government lawyers still don’t bill by the hour. Such plebeians!] The thought of lunching with a private lawyer, with whom you have no current business, should be disconcerting, even if you’re not paying for his or her time.  Somebody is.
  • If you are yourself a lawyer, what in the world will you talk about? Not your clients’ affairs, although you may spend most of your waking hours on them. You’re bound to keep confidential that kind of information. So are other lawyers at the table, with respect to their clients.
  • You’re left with mundane topics only. Baseball? How dull. The coming election? Also dull; there’s always one of those. Freud says all dreams are about sex, but lawyers don’t discuss that, even in their dreams.

So J. and his lunch-mate talked about money and the private club the other guy belongs to. J. doesn’t recall the club’s name – this was a dream, after all – but he remembers how the discussion went: Oh, you’re a member there. That must be expensive! What are the fees, anyway? And then the crushing reply: You can’t join. It’s a kind of shibboleth with us, didn’t you know? If you have to ask how much, you don’t belong in the club.

Point, game and match to the other side. Did I mention that social conversations in D.C. are mostly about power? With just a few words the other guy demonstrated his wealth, J.’s ignorance of local social conventions, and a superior knowledge of English vocabulary. How’s that for a nightmare? It certainly would upset me, if it were mine. I wouldn’t like it if it happened in reality, either.]

What Is a Shibboleth?

This brings us to the question of the day.  What is a shibboleth? I didn’t know when J. called; I thought the word might be related somehow to the Middle East, and the nightmare conflicts over there; but I didn’t see how it fit into a dream about lawyers and private clubs. So I pulled out my Compact Oxford English Dictionary [the COED][4] for some help.

The COED defines a shibboleth as “a longstanding belief or principle that many people regard as outdated or no longer important.” That’s interesting, and I understand the part about it being a “longstanding … principle.” In the context of J.’s dream, it’s not surprising that the members of a private club that values money would want to exclude those who don’t have it. But would they also admit, in their heart of hearts, that they may be mistaken – that others might regard their view as “outdated or no longer important”? If so, was J.’s lunch companion simply making fun of his own social class? That’s possible in a dream, but in real life I doubt it. Such people, pleased with their wealth and status, are not prone to criticize, or even laugh at themselves.

Shibboleth as Test

While I often rely on the COED, it’s not always trustworthy. It’s “compact,” after all, so it tends to oversimplify, and does so with shibboleth. If you look deeper[5], it turns out that word comes from the Bible, or more particularly from the Book of Judges.[6] Then they said 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.[7] So we know people in Old Testament days were really strict, but why was that particular word so important that someone who mispronounced it had to die?

The word itself wasn’t important. There were extenuating circumstances. The Bible passage refers to a war between two Semitic tribes, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, back around 1370 to 1070 BCE. The Gileadites won, and set up a blockade on the Jordan River to intercept their [fleeing] adversary. The Ephraimites spoke a different dialect, and couldn’t pronounce certain words the same way as the Gileadites. So when someone came to the river’s edge, he or she was asked to say shibboleth; those who couldn’t do it correctly were judged Ephraimites. “[A]nd there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.”[8]

Now today, of course, we might have a problem with this tactic. It gathers all Ephraimites into the net, not just the guilty ones; and, to the extent they were combatants, and detained for questioning, they were prisoners of war. Today it’s not nice to slaughter POWs and even worse to slaughter innocents. But hey, that was then and this is now.

Or is it? Perhaps the tactic still persists. There are indications that warring factions in the Middle East even today screen their populations, and their adversaries, with shibboleths. There are reports, for example, of ISIS and others detaining people, compelling them to recite articles in the Koran or whatever, and kidnapping – and/or killing – the ones who don’t get them right.[9]

Political Shibboleths

Moving on, let’s talk about other shibboleths and how they are used. Here I’m going to refer to a long version, not the compact one, of the Oxford English Dictionary.[10] Shibboleths also include catchwords and formulae adopted by a group to identify its members or exclude others.[11] The practice was well known even in the 17th Century. “For them their foes a deadly Shibboleth [italics added] devise: By which unrighteously it was decreed, that None to Trust or Profit should succeed, who would not swallow first a poysonous wicked Weed.”[12] In short, insiders drink the Kool Aid; swallow the poison of the day, because otherwise they won’t get anything from the Government. Does that sound familiar? Is that why we have lobbyists in D.C.? To pledge allegiance to the current shibboleths, and then hire out to represent us, the outsiders?[13]

Or are shibboleths there simply to fool the public? “Knaves and fools invent catch-words and shibboleths to keep them [honest persons] from coming to a just understanding.”[14] Who knows? The answer could be, “all of the above.”

Conclusion

Some people are concerned about the proliferation of shibboleths in today’s politics.[15] From the inside of a group a shibboleth can be a useful tool for identifying and unifying the membership. From the outside, it can be a basis for others to stereotype the group. Shibboleths can be useful in computer programming for ensuring security[16], but when used with people, they create gaps that, believe it or not, may cause trouble. Some modern artists make this point quite effectively.[17]

So the more we use shibboleths to separate ourselves from others, the more likely it is that they may be used against us. Consider again the situation outlined in the Old Testament. Basically minor differences in language were used by people in one group to identify and kill people in another. That may have been the first occurrence of its kind, but it’s not unique. The same thing happens from time to time, and not just in the Middle East.[18] The question is, in an increasingly hot and congested planet, how bad will it get?

This is all conjecture, I suppose, but I do know one thing for sure. If the British ever get mad at us, and decide to test our language skills, as the Gileadites did the Ephraimites, we are in for serious trouble. The differences between British and American English are vast, and some of their pronunciations are simply incomprehensible. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the You Tube video at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOd3lwluQIw

There, if you’ve watched the video you can see my point. I certainly don’t want to go to jail, or be executed, for mispronouncing Wriothesley. So let’s not annoy the Brits unnecessarily.

By the way, I’m Phil, this blog’s resident philosopher. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself earlier.

[1] See Compact Oxford English Dictionary (3rd Edition, 2005) at shibboleth, p. 952. Hereafter, this dictionary will be cited as COED at p. __.

[2] See COED at stereotype, p. 1017.

[3] It’s at Judges, Ch. 12, v. 6. For those of you who don’t have a Bible handy, you can retrieve the same quote from the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition) (2004) at  Judges, p. 79, n.28. Be warned! It doesn’t give you the full quote.

[4] See n. 1.

[5] In my case, that involved going to The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (Oxford University Press, 1971) at Vol. 2, shibboleth, p. 688. Henceforth, this Compact Edition will be cited as OED 1971 at ___. Why do we use an edition that’s so old? Well, for three reasons: (i) it’s complete, (ii) it’s the only one we have, and (iii) it’s pretty good on the history and source of words.

[6] Of course, there’s more to it than that. Actually shibboleth comes originally from the ancient Hebrew. Wikipedia has what looks to be a good account of the word’s derivation, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shibboleth

[7] See Judges, Ch. 12, v. 6.

[8] Id. See also Rice University, Kemmer, The Story of the Shibboleth (04/07/2016), available at http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words/shibboleth.html 

[9] See, e.g., Vocativ, Kavanaugh, Why African Jihadists Want To Know If You Can Recite From The Quran (Nov. 20, 2015), at http://www.vocativ.com/253330/why-african-jihadists-want-to-know-if-you-can-recite-from-the-quran/    “Time and time again, the demonstration of Islamist knowledge has become a litmus test for victims of al Qaeda affiliates in Africa as they wage campaigns of terror across the continent. Members of al Shabaab, an al Qaeda offshoot, have spared those able to recite from the Quran during deadly rampages, including the attacks at Kenya’s Westgate mall and Garissa University.” See also New York Times, Hubbard, ISIS Said to Kill 150 Syrian Captives in 2 Days, Videotaping the Horror (August 28, 2014), at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/29/world/middleeast/golan-heights-un-peacekeepers-syria.html  “When he tells the interrogators that he is an Alawite, they insult him and say, “We’ll return you to hell, God willing.” And they did, kill him, that is.

[10] See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (Oxford University Press, 1971) at Vol. 2, shibboleth, p. 688. This version is also called “compact,” but only because its contents have been miniaturized. The pages have to be read with a magnifying glass, but the content has not been edited in any way. We’ll cite this as OED 1971.

[11] See OED 1971 at Vol. 2, shibboleth, p. 688: “A catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded.”

[12] Id. That’s from John Dryden, if you want to know.

[13] See Rice University, Kemmer, The Story of the Shibboleth (04/07/2016), available at http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words/shibboleth.html We are the outsiders, you know.

[14] Id. That’s from the OED 1971 quoting Sir Walter Scott.

[15] See The Double Edge of Language: Neighbor/Enemy: Double Edge of Shibboleth | Clay Scott | TEDxUMontana, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1SdDWg7XBk&nohtml5=False

[16] See, e.g. Unicon, Federated Single Sign-On Authentication Service, available at https://www.unicon.net/opensource/shibboleth?gclid=Cj0KEQjwipi4BRD7t6zGl6m75IgBEiQAn7CfF-Djf0jQEG498ptIKTFiVtgkn1wySh4GiFgbPEcDtRMaAqPs8P8HAQ  Check this site before you use it. I’m not sure I trust it.

[17] See the work of Doris Salcedo, especially Shibboleth, Tate Modern, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDCbupD-340

[18] Wikipedia, for example, has a partial list of incidents in its piece on shibboleths, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shibboleth

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