Sunday, December 14, 2008


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.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


In honor of Pearl Harbor Day, I thought I'd ponder this word a bit. As an American, the word 'infamy' automatically links to 'Day of Infamy', meaning Pearl Harbor Day. It was a Sunday, perhaps much like this one, when the Japanese led the surprise attack on the Hawaiian naval base that launched us into our participation in WWII. I've posted a comment about meeting some of the survivors of that day today here: Pearl Harbor Day Breakfast.

But what is infamy, exactly? How do I translate it in the above phrase? I guess in a very rough way, I take it to mean a day that will go down in history in a really, really bad way. Maybe that's close enough, but maybe it isn't. In the U.S., there are no other 'days of infamy', though I suppose 9/11 might end up being called something very like it. I'm curious, in any case, what this word really means, as opposed to my assumption.

Infamy is, according to the Free Dictionary, a state. It's a condition of dishonor, of shame, of being held in contempt. FDR's exact phrase is "a date which will live in infamy." Oddly, though, this conveys a sense of him being a reader, and a classics reader at that. Because when you look at the citations, it seems to be a word that, unless it is being pulled out of the attic to heap scorn on someone, has already largely passed out of the language. The sources cited are quotes from Anne Bronte, Henry Fielding and other pre 20th century British literary giants. This might just be the Free Dictionary's data base. But I don't think so. I think the reason we think of the Day or should I say Date of Infamy so easily is that there are not a whole lot of other examples that spring to mind of the word being used in our common social context. Yet surely there have been many other infamous days since then.

And our position hasn't always been that of the innocent one. Unfortunately.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Trust me--I do not know how to spell this word. It's going to be right in the title by the time you see this, but I am really just taking a random guess as I'm thinking about it. Oh, I know what it means all right--roughly anyway. 'Without a scintilla of proof' is close enough to 'without a shred of evidence' as to make no difference. But where does it come from? Is it Spanish? Italian? Latin? And why do we use it?

Uh, I got it right. No, really--I swear. It comes from the Latin 'spark'. I remain curious as to why so many words for the infinitesimal remain in our language. Iota, smidgen, jot, tittle.

One difference of scintilla--it can mean 'a sparkling, glistening particle'. I was somewhat surprised to realize that the word 'scintillating' is actually related. Hardly surprising, you say? It's just that they appear in such different contexts that I never made the connection.

scintillate: to throw off sparks, to flash.

to sparkle or shine

to be animated or brilliant--as in a dinner table conversation

Scintillating, mais non?