shibboleth

noun
shib·​bo·​leth | \ ˈshi-bə-ləth How to pronounce shibboleth (audio) also -ˌleth \

Definition of shibboleth

1a : a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning the old shibboleths come rolling off their lips— Joseph Epstein
b : a widely held belief today this book publishing shibboleth is a myth— L. A. Wood
c : truism, platitude some truth in the shibboleth that crime does not pay— Lee Rogow
2a : a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group accent was … a shibboleth of social class— Vivian Ducat
b : a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others for most of the well-to-do in the town, dinner was a shibboleth, its hour dividing mankind— Osbert Sitwell

Keep scrolling for more

Did You Know?

The Bible's Book of Judges (12:4-6) tells the story of the Ephraimites, who, after they were routed by the Gileadite army, tried to retreat by sneaking across a ford of the Jordan River that was held by their enemy. The Gileadites, wary of the ploy, asked every soldier who tried to cross if he was an Ephraimite. When the soldier said "no," he was asked to say "shibboleth" (which means "stream" in Hebrew). Gileadites pronounced the word shibboleth, but Ephramites said "sibboleth." Anyone who left out the initial "sh" was killed on the spot. When English speakers first borrowed "shibboleth," they used it to mean "test phrase," but it has acquired additional meanings since that time.

Examples of shibboleth in a Sentence

She repeated the old shibboleth that time heals all wounds. we knew that their claim of giving “the best deal in town” was just a shibboleth
Recent Examples on the Web Taking the stage after Trump, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal tore into his GOP primary rival’s attempt to use holy writ as a shibboleth. Peter Manseau, The New Republic, "What Trump Taught America About the Bible," 18 Sep. 2020 The Republican shibboleth of voter fraud deserves to be put to rest once and for all. Editorial Board Star Tribune, Star Tribune, "Don't let Trump undermine the election process," 12 Sep. 2020 History has repeatedly proved these shibboleths wrong, and even the American people no longer seem to buy them, but that hardly matters. Alex Pareene, The New Republic, "Psychopath Nation," 10 Feb. 2020 More than a few viewers have also noticed that its story line serves as a covert critique of some cherished shibboleths, especially the kind of everyone-gets-a-ribbon egalitarianism that post-boomer generations have grown up on. Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, "The 34 best political movies ever made," 23 Jan. 2020 Even sillier was the old shibboleth that China’s embrace of capitalist reforms — as if by some unwritten, determinist economic law — would lead to constitutional government. Victor Davis Hanson, National Review, "How China ‘Woke’ America," 3 Oct. 2019 These critiques of class-action lawsuits amount to a shibboleth among conservatives and big businesses. Kenneth K. Lee, National Review, "A Counterintuitive and Compelling Case for Class-Action Lawsuits," 2 Dec. 2019 The Partnership’s ad campaign hauls out the familiar shibboleths against healthcare reform. Los Angeles Times, "Column: Vested interests are already mounting dishonest attacks on ‘Medicare for all’," 1 Aug. 2019 That changed after China embarked on economic reforms four decades ago while the North stuck to orthodox communism's shibboleths of state ownership and central planning, even as its economy tanked and starvation grew. Christopher Bodeen, Fox News, "Xi's NKorea visit a chance to strengthen ties, influence US," 20 June 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'shibboleth.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

See More

First Known Use of shibboleth

1638, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for shibboleth

Hebrew shibbōleth stream; from the use of this word in Judges 12:6 as a test to distinguish Gileadites from Ephraimites

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about shibboleth

Time Traveler for shibboleth

Time Traveler

The first known use of shibboleth was in 1638

See more words from the same year

Listen to Our Podcast about shibboleth

Statistics for shibboleth

Cite this Entry

“Shibboleth.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shibboleth. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

Style: MLA
MLA Chicago APA Merriam-Webster

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for shibboleth

shibboleth

noun

English Language Learners Definition of shibboleth

: an old idea, opinion, or saying that is commonly believed and repeated but that may be seen as old-fashioned or untrue
: a word or way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group

More from Merriam-Webster on shibboleth

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for shibboleth

Comments on shibboleth

What made you want to look up shibboleth? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).

WORD OF THE DAY

Test Your Vocabulary

Who Knew?

True or False

Test your knowledge - and maybe learn something along the way.

TAKE THE QUIZ
 AlphaBear 2

Spell words. Make bears.

TAKE THE QUIZ
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!