During my morning reading of the Guardian, I found this sentence in an article by Jonathan Freedland:

America’s centre of gravity has moved rightward, creating a set of shibboleths that cannot be challenged.

Shibboleths? According to the OED, it is a Hebrew word that means "stream in flood", used by Jephthah as a test-word by which to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the sh) from his own men, the Gileadites (Judges xii. 4-6).
It has come to mean a word or sound which a person is unable to pronounce correctly; a word used as a test for detecting foreigners, or persons from another district, by their pronunciation. In this context, it is used in the wider sense of a catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded.

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:43+00:00 October 20th, 2004|Words|2 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Jemima October 20, 2004 at 10:58 am

    There’s a whole episode of the West Wing about this word. In brief, some Chinese Christians are seeking refuge in the US and it’s considered important to know whether they are economic migrants or genuine asylum seekers. There is much discussion of how to work this out and how to establish whether they are actually Christians. The word Shibboleth is explained and then used. And then glorious President Bartlett says it wouldn’t really have mattered anyway since there is no way to know about faith… or something…
    So, the moral of the story is: watch West Wing and learn about language, religion and politics.

  2. flaming zinc October 22, 2004 at 4:41 am

    Ah, you beat me to it. The West Wing really is the smartest show on tv, the new season started yesterday and it is proving to be v exciting. Though my favourite episodes are the ones where you learn something 🙂

Comments are closed.