In a recent post over on Adrian McKinty's blog , the word 'shibboleth' was mentioned in reference to some things the British hold dear. Once again, it's a word I can read well enough in a sentence, but couldn't use in one with any confidence without a little dictionary checking. (Yeah, I know--it gets old.)
I can understand it in a sentence because I can figure out the meaning from the context. But without that help, I wouldn't be sure if 'shibboleth' meant something more along the line of sacred cows or of taboos.
So what is a shibboleth, exactly? And where does the word hail from?
...Well, apparently I can't read it well enough in a sentence, because I have got it pretty wrong. At its most basic,'shibboleth' means a word that distinguishes one class, group or sect from another. The etymology apparently goes back originally to the Hebrew sibbolet, meaning 'torrent of water', which, according to the Free Dictionary, was used by the Gileadites as a kind of password against the Ephraimites, who couldn't pronounce the 'sh' sound. So it means a password, a catchword, but then extends on to mean a part of insider language that excludes others. Apparently the test is not only about pronunciation but about agreement with received wisdom. So it can also mean a slogan or rallying cry, but also often refers to an outmoded meaning.
No, I'm still not sure I would use it correctly in a sentence, but I'm also pretty clear that I might not be caught out by most if I didn't. Because an outworn slogan is surely in the eyes of the beholder, isn't it? To the insider, it's the received wisdom.