A New Orleans resident challenges out-of-towners who had come to protest against the 2017 removal of the Robert E. Lee Monument. The out-of-towners' inability to pronounce "Tchoupitoulas Street" according to the local fashion would be a shibboleth marking them as outsiders.

A shibboleth (/ˈʃɪbəlɛθ, -ɪθ/ ;[1][2] Biblical Hebrew: שִׁבֹּלֶת, romanized: šībbōleṯ) is any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another.[3][4][5] Shibboleths have been used throughout history in many societies as passwords, simple ways of self-identification, signaling loyalty and affinity, maintaining traditional segregation, or protecting from real or perceived threats.


The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbóleth (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which means the part of a plant containing grain, such as the ear of a stalk of wheat or rye;[6][7] or less commonly (but arguably more appropriately)[a] "flood, torrent".[8][9]

The modern use derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect used a different first consonant. The difference concerns the Hebrew letter shin, which is now pronounced as [ʃ] (as in shoe).[10] In the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead under the command of Jephthah inflicted a military defeat upon the invading tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BC), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the River Jordan back into their home territory, but the Gileadites secured the river's fords to stop them. To identify and kill these Ephraimites, the Gileadites told each suspected survivor to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimite dialect resulted in a pronunciation that, to Gileadites, sounded like sibboleth.[10] In Judges 12:5–6 in the King James Bible, the anecdote appears thus (with the word already in its current English spelling):

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[11]

Modern use

In modern English, a shibboleth can have a sociological meaning, referring to any in-group word or phrase that can distinguish members from outsiders.[12] It is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean jargon, the proper use of which identifies speakers as members of a particular group or subculture.

In information technology, a shibboleth is a community-wide password that enables members of that community to access an online resource without revealing their individual identities. The origin server can vouch for the identity of the individual user without giving the target server any further identifying information.[13] Hence the individual user does not know the password that is actually employed – it is generated internally by the origin server – and so cannot betray it to outsiders.

The term can also be used pejoratively, suggesting that the original meaning of a symbol has in effect been lost and that the symbol now serves merely to identify allegiance, being described as "nothing more than a shibboleth". In 1956, Nobel Prize-laureate economist Paul Samuelson applied the term "shibboleth" in works including Foundations of Economic Analysis to an idea for which "the means becomes the end, and the letter of the law takes precedence over the spirit."[14] Samuelson admitted that "shibboleth" is an imperfect term for this phenomenon.[15]


Villagers of Ungheni, Bessarabia Governorate, displaying Christian icons on their homes in order to discriminate themselves from Judaism and defend themselves from a pogrom in 1905, as depicted by Hermanus Willem Koekkoek (1867–1929)

Main article: List of shibboleths

Shibboleths have been used by different subcultures throughout the world at different times. Regional differences, level of expertise, and computer coding techniques are several forms that shibboleths have taken.

The legend goes that before the Battle of the Golden Spurs in May 1302, the Flemish slaughtered every Frenchman they could find in the city of Bruges, an act known as the Matins of Bruges.[16] They identified Frenchmen based on their inability to pronounce the Flemish phrase schild en vriend "shield and friend", or possibly gilden vriend "friend of the Guilds". However, many Medieval Flemish dialects did not contain the cluster sch- either (even today's Kortrijk dialect has sk-), and Medieval French rolled the r just as Flemish did.[b]

There is an anecdote in Sicily that, during the rebellion of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282, the inhabitants of the island killed the French occupiers who, when questioned, could not correctly pronounce the Sicilian word cìciri "chickpeas".[17]

Following Mayor Albert's Rebellion in 1312 Kraków, Poles used the Polish language shibboleth Soczewica, koło, miele, młyn ("Lentil, wheel, grinds (verb), mill) to distinguish the German-speaking burghers. Those who could not properly pronounce this phrase were executed.[18]

Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis; wa't dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries

"Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis; wa't dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries" ("Butter, rye bread and green cheese, whoever cannot say that is not a genuine Frisian") was a phrase used by the Frisian Pier Gerlofs Donia during a Frisian rebellion (1515–1523). Ships whose crew could not pronounce this properly were usually plundered and soldiers who could not were beheaded by Donia himself.[19]

In Japan during the 1923 Kantō Massacre, vigilantes attempted to identify ethnic Koreans by making them say "five yen and 50 sen" (which they felt was hard for Koreans to pronounce). People who failed to recite the shibboleth to their satisfaction were killed; among those were ethnic Japanese people who spoke dialects and Chinese people.[20][21][dubiousdiscuss]

In October 1937, the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, was used as a shibboleth to identify Haitian immigrants living along the border in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, ordered the execution of these people. It is alleged that between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals were murdered within a few days in the Parsley Massacre, although more recent scholarship and the lack of evidence such as mass graves puts the actual estimate closer to between 1,000 and 12,168.[22]

During the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, the Dutch used the name of the seaside town of Scheveningen as a shibboleth to tell Germans from Dutch ("Sch" in Dutch is analyzed as the letter "s" combined with the digraph "ch", producing the consonant cluster [sx], while in German "Sch" is read as the trigraph "sch", pronounced [ʃ], closer to "sh" sound in English).[23][24][12]

Some American soldiers in the Pacific theater in World War II used the word lollapalooza as a shibboleth to challenge unidentified persons, on the premise that Japanese people would often pronounce both letters L and R as rolled Rs.[25] In Oliver Gramling's Free Men Are Fighting: The Story of World War II (1942) the author notes that, in the war, Japanese spies would often approach checkpoints posing as American or Filipino military personnel. A shibboleth such as "lollapalooza" would be used by the sentry, who, if the first two syllables come back as rorra, would "open fire without waiting to hear the remainder".[26] Another sign/countersign used by the Allied forces: the challenge/sign was "flash", the password "thunder", and the countersign "Welcome".[27] This was used during D-Day during World War II due to the rarity of the voiceless dental fricative (th-sound) and voiced labial–velar approximant (w-sound) in German.

During The Troubles in Northern Ireland, use of the name Derry or Londonderry for the province's second-largest city was often taken as an indication of the speaker's political stance, and as such frequently implied more than simply naming the location.[28] The pronunciation of the name of the letter H is a related shibboleth, with Catholics pronouncing it as "haitch" and Protestants often pronouncing the letter differently.[29]

During the Black July riots of Sri Lanka in 1983, many Tamils were massacred by Sinhalese youths. In many cases these massacres took the form of boarding buses and getting the passengers to pronounce words that had [b] at the beginning (like baldiya 'bucket') and executing the people who found it difficult.[30][31]

In Australia and New Zealand, the words "fish and chips" are often used to highlight the difference in each country's short-i vowel sound [ɪ] and asking someone to say the phrase can identify which country they are from. Australian English has a higher forward sound [i], close to the y in happy and city, while New Zealand English has a lower backward sound [ɘ], a slightly higher version of the a in about and comma. Thus, New Zealanders hear Australians say "feesh and cheeps", while Australians hear New Zealanders say "fush and chups".[32] A long drawn out pronunciation of the names of the cities Brisbane and Melbourne rather than the typically Australian rapid "bun" ending is a common way for someone to be exposed as new to the country. Within Australia, what someone calls "devon", or how they name the size of beer they order can often pinpoint what state they are from, as both of these have varied names across the country.[citation needed]

In Canada, the name of Canada's second largest city, Montreal, is pronounced /mʌntriˈɔːl/ by English-speaking locals. This contrasts with the typical American pronunciation of the city as /mɒntriˈɔːl/.[33]

In the United States, the name of the state "Nevada" comes from the Spanish nevada [neˈβaða], meaning "snow-covered".[34] Nevadans pronounce the second syllable with the "a" as in "trap" (/nɪˈvædə/) while some people from outside of the state can pronounce it with the "a" as in "palm" (/nɪˈvɑːdə/).[35] Although many Americans interpret the latter back vowel as being closer to the Spanish pronunciation, it is not the pronunciation used by Nevadans. Likewise, the same test can be used to identify someone unfamiliar with southwest Missouri, as the city of Nevada, Missouri is pronounced with the "a" as in "cape" (/nɪˈvdə/).

During the Russo-Ukrainian War (2014–present), Ukrainians have used the word palianytsia (a type of Ukrainian bread) to distinguish between Ukrainians and Russians.[36]

In New York City, how one pronounces the name of Houston Street in Manhattan is a common differentiatior between tourists and those who live in the city. Tourists tend to pronounce it similarly to the name of the city in Texas, while the New York pronunciation is HOW-stun (/ˈhstən/).[37]

Furtive shibboleths

A "furtive shibboleth" is a type of a shibboleth that identifies individuals as being part of a group, not based on their ability to pronounce one or more words, but on their ability to recognize a seemingly innocuous phrase as a secret message. For example, members of Alcoholics Anonymous sometimes refer to themselves as "a friend of Bill W.", which is a reference to AA's founder, William Griffith Wilson. To the uninitiated, this would seem like a casual – if off-topic – remark, but other AA members would understand its meaning.[38]

Similarly, during World War II, a homosexual US sailor might call himself a "friend of Dorothy", a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of a stereotypical affinity for Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. This code was so effective that the Naval Investigative Service, upon learning that the phrase was a way for gay sailors to identify each other, undertook a search for this "Dorothy", whom they believed to be an actual woman with connections to homosexual servicemen in the Chicago area.[39][40]

Likewise, homosexuals in Britain might use the cant language Polari.[41]

Mark Twain used an explicit shibboleth to conceal a furtive shibboleth. In The Innocents Abroad he told the Shibboleth story in seemingly "inept and uninteresting" detail. To the initiated, however, the wording revealed that Twain was a freemason.[42]

"Fourteen Words", "14", or "14/88" are furtive shibboleths used among white supremacists in the Anglosphere.[43]

In art

Doris Salcedo's artwork Shibboleth, at Tate Modern, London

Colombian conceptual artist Doris Salcedo created a work titled Shibboleth at Tate Modern, London, in 2007–2008. The piece consisted of a 548-foot-long crack that bisected the floor of the Tate's lobby space.

Salcedo said of the work:

It represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred. It is the experience of a Third World person coming into the heart of Europe. For example, the space which illegal immigrants occupy is a negative space. And so this piece is a negative space.[44]

See also



  1. ^ The context was the crossing of the River Jordan; according to Speiser 1942, p. 10 the medieval Hebrew commentators and most modern scholars have understood it in this alternative sense.
  2. ^ Although the website Language Log: Born on the 11th of July says that the /sχ/ cluster in schild that makes it difficult for French-speakers to pronounce had not yet developed in the 14th century, the phrase "scilt en vrient" is referenced in primary sources such as the Chronique of Gilles Li Muisis as distinguishing French from Flemish.


  1. ^ Jones, Daniel (2003) [1917], Peter Roach; James Hartmann; Jane Setter (eds.), English Pronouncing Dictionary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 3-12-539683-2
  2. ^ "Shibboleth". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary.
  3. ^ Concise Oxford Dictionary, 8th ed, (Oxford University Press, 1990), 1117.
  4. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary, shibboleth, accessed online 22 September 2015.
  5. ^ Collins English Dictionary, shibboleth, accessed online 22 September 2015.
  6. ^ Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch, Sixth Edition and "Schibboleth". Meyers Lexikon online. Archived from the original on 29 April 2009. Retrieved 26 September 2007.
  7. ^ "shibboleth". American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition."shibboleth". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 24 May 2024. (this latter meaning is not in use in Modern Hebrew)
  8. ^ Speiser, E. A. (February 1942). "The Shibboleth Incident (Judges 12:6)". Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 85 (85). University of Chicago Press: 10–13. doi:10.2307/1355052. JSTOR 1355052. S2CID 163386740.
  9. ^ Hendel, Ronald S. (February 1996). "Sibilants and šibbōlet (Judges. 12:6)". Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 301 (301). University of Chicago Press: 69–75. doi:10.2307/1357296. JSTOR 1357296. S2CID 164131149.
  10. ^ a b Richard Hess; Daniel I. Block; Dale W. Manor (12 January 2016). Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. Zondervan. p. 352. ISBN 978-0-310-52759-6.
  11. ^ Judges 12:5–6
  12. ^ a b McNamara, Tim (2005). "21st century shibboleth: language tests, identity and intergroup conflict". Language Policy. 4 (4): 351–370. doi:10.1007/s10993-005-2886-0. S2CID 145528271.
  13. ^ Dorman, David (October 2002). "Technically Speaking: Can You Say "Shibboleth"?". American Libraries. 33 (9). American Library Association: 86–7. JSTOR 25648483..
  14. ^ Samuelson, Paul A. (1977). "When it is ethically optimal to allocate money income in stipulated fractional shares". Natural Resources, Uncertainty, and General Equilibrium Systems: Essays in Memory of Rafael Lusky. New York: Academic Press. pp. 175–195. ISBN 978-0-12-106150-0.
  15. ^ Samuelson, Paul A. (February 1956). "Social Indifference Curves". Quarterly Journal of Economics. 70 (1): 1–22. doi:10.2307/1884510. ISBN 9780262190220. JSTOR 1884510.
  16. ^ Devries, Kelly. Infantry Warfare in the Early 14th Century. N.p.: Boydell, 1996. Print.
  17. ^ "Quando un pugno di ceci fece la storia della Sicilia" (in Italian). Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  18. ^ Paul Knoll (2017). "Chapter 19: Economic and Political Institutions on the Polish-German Frontier in the Middle Ages: Action, reaction, interaction". In Nora Berend (ed.). The Expansion of Central Europe in the Middle Ages. Routledge. p. 445.
  19. ^ "Greate Pier fan Wûnseradiel" (in Western Frisian). Gemeente Wûnseradiel. Retrieved 4 January 2008.
  20. ^ Lee, Jinhee (1 March 2013). "'Malcontent Koreans (Futei Senjin)': Towards a Genealogy of Colonial Representation of Koreans in the Japanese Empire". Studies on Asia IV: 156–157.
  21. ^ "A play teaching the history of the Great Kanto Earthquake massacres to Japanese youth". The Hankyoreh. 5 June 2017. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  22. ^ Vega, Bernardo (10 October 2012). "La matanza de 1937". La lupa sin trabas (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 7 January 2014. Durante los meses de octubre y diciembre de 1937, fuentes haitianas, norteamericanas e inglesas ubicadas en Haití dieron cifras que oscilaron entre 1,000 y 12,168
  23. ^ "Zonder ons erbij te betrekken" Retrieved on 23 december 2011
  24. ^ Corstius, H. B. (1981) Opperlandse taal- & letterkunde, Querido's Uitgeverij, Amsterdam. Retrieved on 23 december 2011
  25. ^ US Army & Navy, 1942. HOW TO SPOT A JAP Educational Comic Strip, (from US govt's POCKET GUIDE TO CHINA, 1st edition). Retrieved 10-10-2007
  26. ^ Gramling, Oliver (1942). Free Men Are Fighting: The Story of World War II. Farrar and Rinehart, Inc. p. 315.
  27. ^ Lewis, Jon E. (2004). D-Day as They Saw it. Carroll & Graf. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-7867-1381-3.
  28. ^ "Court to rule on city name". BBC News. 7 April 2006. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  29. ^ Dolan, T. P. (1 January 2004). A Dictionary of Hiberno-English: The Irish Use of English. Gill & Macmillan Ltd. ISBN 9780717135356.
  30. ^ Hyndman, Patricia. "-Democracy in Peril, June 1983". Lawasia Human Rights Standing Committee Report -Democracy in Peril, June 1983.
  31. ^ "Passport to life". Daily News. Daily News (Sri Lanka's state broadsheet). Retrieved 27 April 2015.
  32. ^ "Speech and accent". Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. 5 September 2013. Retrieved 18 January 2019.
  33. ^ Chaar, Mike (25 January 2023). "Here's Why Americans Pronounce Montreal THAT Way". MTL Blog. Archived from the original on 1 March 2023. Retrieved 14 July 2023.
  34. ^ "Nevada". Wordreference.com. Archived from the original on 25 December 2007. Retrieved 24 February 2007.
  35. ^ Francis McCabe (18 October 2018). "You Say Nevada, I Say Nevada…". Archived from the original on 1 August 2019. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  36. ^ Handley, Erin; Adams, Mietta (2 April 2022). "Snapshots from Ukrainian cities under siege or facing threat of Russian bombardment". ABC News. Retrieved 2 April 2022.
  37. ^ La Gorce, Tammy (26 January 2017). "Why Is Houston Street Not Pronounced Like the Texas City?". New York Times. Retrieved 1 August 2022.
  38. ^ "What is Friends of Bill W. on a Cruise?". cruisecritic. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  39. ^ Casey, Constance (29 March 1993). "'Conduct Unbecoming': In Defense of Gays on the Front Line". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 4 September 2019. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  40. ^ Shilts, Randy (1993). Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 387. ISBN 0-312-34264-0 – via Google Books.
  41. ^ Hensher, Philip (22 June 2019). "Polari, the secret gay argot, is making a surprising comeback". The Spectator.
  42. ^ Jones, Alexander E. (1954). "Mark Twain and Freemasonry". American Literature. 26 (3). Duke University Press: 368–9. doi:10.2307/2921690. JSTOR 2921690.
  43. ^ Ridgeway, James (28 October 2008). "US elections: Fourteen Words that spell racism". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 17 October 2019.
  44. ^ Alberge, Dalya (9 October 2007). "Welcome to Tate Modern's floor show – it's 167m long and is called Shibboleth". The Times. No. 69137. London. p. 33.

Further reading