I just returned from a University IT conference where once again we heard about a shared-authentication system called "Shibboleth." A few of my colleagues didn't know what this word was in reference too, so I illuminated them. Now I'll illuminate you too:
Grace Cathedral" has a nice commmentary on it.
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)
Whenever no idol-worshiping enemy is handy for a fight, the tribes of Israel kill time by bickering among themselves. This time Hebrew settlers in Gilead, west of the Jordan and famous for its balm, have angered the tribe of Ephraim by pounding on a mutual enemy without consulting them. Hotheads on both sides provoke a civil war, and the Ephraimites launch an incursion across the river.
But they're no match for the Gileadites, who block passage back across the Jordan and kill any foe who falls into their clutches. If an Ephraimite attempted to pass himself off as a friend, the Gileadites would make him pronounce the word Shibboleth -- Hebrew for "flooding stream." Each Ephraimite victim, ignorant of his comrades' fate, would lapse into his dialect, in which initial sh sounds were pronounced s, yielding "Sibboleth." And that was the last word he ever spoke.
This charming tale has, of course, left its mark on everyday English. "Shibboleth," in line with the biblical story, now means primarily "password" or "distinguishing trait," though what it distinguishes is not limited to one's tribe. In the sense of "peculiar language or habit revealing ties to a party, sect, or sub-culture," shibboleth may also mean "slogan" and "catch-phrase." ("Tubular," for example, is a shibboleth of surfing culture.) This is how Sir Walter Scott used the word when he asserted in one of his letters that "Knaves and fools invent catch-words and shibboleths" to keep honest, plain-speaking folk like himself "from coming to a just understanding." Much the same has been said by distressed commentators about the current academic scene.
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