n. Heb, shibboleth, ear of corn, stream, flood; used as a test in Judges 12:6 to distinguish Gilaedites from Ephraimites, who pronounced it sibb-O-leth. The modern meaning is 'password, usage, catchword' - used to distinguish members of one group from those in another; to detect foreigners.

Life in Ancient Israel was always full of surprises. If the Hebrew tribes weren't under attack by vicious Gentiles, they were fighting amongst each other for one reason or another. The Ephraimite Tribe in northern Israel, for reasons that seemed good at the time, decided to wage war on the Gileadite Tribe in what is today northwest Jordan. They were roundly repulsed, and the Ephraimites soon found themselves attempting to flee the Gilead territory by crossing the Jordan River.

Jephthah, the Gilead General, didn't like the idea of letting men leave who could later come back to attack again, so he posted troops at Jordan crossings, and ordered them to slay all Ephraimites. However, Ephraim and Gilead were both Hebrew tribes, and it was difficult to tell a Gileadite from an Ephraimite when they weren't wearing armor. So Jephthah ordered his guards to ask those who would pass to prounounce the Hebrew word for an ear of corn. Gileads said 'Shib-bo-leth', while Ephraimites said it as 'Sib-bo-leth'. Any man who couldn't pronounce it correctly was killed on the spot.

This has always confused me, because there has never been a 'TH' sound in modern Hebrew. Maybe it was pronounced Shib-bo-let.

For many centuries, the term 'shibboleth' was used in a manner synonymous with (and somewhat more accurate than) the modern word 'buzzword'.

Shib"bo*leth (?), n. [Heb. shibb&omac;leth an ear of corn, or a stream, a flood.]

1.

A word which was made the criterion by which to distinguish the Ephraimites from the Gileadites. The Ephraimites, not being able to pronounce sh, called the word sibboleth. See Judges xii.

Without reprieve, adjudged to death,
For want of well pronouncing shibboleth. Milton.

Also in an extended sense.

The th, with its twofold value, is . . . the shibboleth of foreigners. Earle.

2.

Hence, the criterion, test, or watchword of a party; a party cry or pet phrase.

 

© Webster 1913.

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