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

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

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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 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 Most Californians may not like President Trump, but his water decision is another case in which his willingness to challenge political shibboleths will help average people. The Editorial Board, WSJ, "Trump’s California Water Relief," 19 Oct. 2018 That phrase has become a presidential shibboleth, used by Mr. Trump to disparage news that’s unhelpful to him. Tunku Varadarajan, WSJ, "The Enemy of the T-Shirt," 6 Aug. 2018 There’s something of a secret password element to this, a shibboleth that not only marks users of a certain age and experience but unites them. Laura Hudson, The Verge, "The latest bizarre Simpsons meme is about downloading songs on Limewire," 19 Oct. 2018 O’Neill has frequently been critical of the way that views on the right to die have neatly cleaved along class lines, with a pro-euthanasia stance becoming identified with upper-middle-class, progressive social shibboleths. Tara Isabella Burton, Vox, "David Goodall’s physician-assisted suicide raises wider questions.," 21 May 2018

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.

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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

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Time Traveler for shibboleth

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The first known use of shibboleth was in 1638

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Last Updated

9 Jan 2020

Cite this Entry

“Shibboleth.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 17 Feb. 2020.

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How to pronounce shibboleth (audio)

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

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