I found today’s word while researching “shibelatta” for Groovy. I’m sorry to say that my resources have utterly failed me on that quest thus far, Groovy, but close to where one possible spelling of your word might have been, I found a delightful treasure of a word. So gather on the story rug, everyone. Get comfy, keep your hands to yourself, and put on your listening ears because today I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a marvelous old story about warfare and treachery and the dark depths of human nature…
These are the Gileadites (aka, Gilead’s kids). They live in a bloody time when it is pretty much par for the course for your extended family to go from being in charge to being enslaved and back again every few generations. The Gileadites are a sub-tribe of a larger group: the Israelites, and at the time our story begins, the Gileadites and two of their fellow sub-tribes (the Benjaminites and the Ephraimites) have hit the “oppressed” section of fortune’s wheel under the rule of the Ammonites.
The Gileadites eventually kick the Ammonites to the curb by begging their half-brother Jephthah to take leadership. He is qualified to lead, it’s worth noting, because he Gilead’s bastard-by-a-whore and was, therefore, kicked out by his half-brothers without a penny to his name. He has had to survive by leading raiding parties with other men who are in similar property-less situations. Jephthah extorts a promise that he will be the head of the house in exchange for dealing with the Ammonites. He campaigns, wins, takes rule of Gilead, and rides home to kill his only daughter. (I’ll spare you my thoughts on that particular gem of an action.)
When the mourning for Mizpah’s death is done, the neighboring Ephraimites put up a fuss. How’s this for you? They essentially say, “Because you didn’t invite us to help you defeat Ammon, we’re going to burn your houses with you in them.” Nice thanks for having their non-Israelite oppressor rousted, right? Obviously they had some reason for concern, however, because Jephthah is home, presumably rich with men and riches he’s acquired on campaign, and therefore has no trouble calling them out. Think “Little Red Hen” only with death instead of no bread.
The Gileadites and the Ephraimites, however, are large tribes where not everyone knows everyone else. Moreover, they’re from ethnically similar backgrounds. They are literally cousins, a countable if somewhat large number of times removed. So when the survivors of Jephthah’s massacre try to sneak across the river to safety, they Gileadites make them say “shibboleth” to make sure they’re of Gilead. Why? Because enough time and language change has happened that the Ephraimites’ dialect does not make a distinction between /s/ and /sh/as the Gileadites’ does, so all of the Ephraimites pronounce the word “sibboleth” and are promptly slaughtered for placing tongue about half an inch too far to the front of their palate.
In Hebrew, sibbolet means “torrent of water.” Probably easy to elicit without suspicion in a setting where people were crossing the River Jordan to get to safety. What is now means, however, is “a word or pronunciation that distinguishes one group of people from another” (AHCD, s.v. “shibboleth”). As early as 1658 A.D., “shibboleth” started showing up in the written record with it’s current English meaning, rather than in strict reference to the story from Judges 12. By 1829, it had acquired a layer of similar meanings to such a degree that it can mean something as simple as the mode of speech of a profession or class.
I have never heard this word used that way, but I can think of a pretty wide array of circumstances that it would aptly describe. Should it bother us that this word from a horribly bloody story has such a broadly generalizable application? I move that we should change society to eliminate the utility of this word so thoroughly so that our children never know it as anything other than a cautionary tale, even unto the fourth generation.
All in favor?