shib·​bo·​leth | \ˈshi-bə-ləth 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

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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

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 Positions on issues like gun control are shibboleths of some of our tribes. New York Times, "Can I Make My Company Take a Stand on Guns?," 16 May 2018 But, more importantly, the Church of England has, in recent decades, often been accused of being religiously disengaged: a church that is more of a cultural shibboleth than a theologically dynamic religious institution. Tara Isabella Burton, Vox, "Bishop Michael Curry just stole the show with his sermon at the Royal Wedding.," 20 May 2018 Work rules for recipients of public assistance, like drug testing, are conservative shibboleths. Michael Hiltzik,, "With food stamp bill, GOP once again promotes work requirements that don't work," 18 Apr. 2018 There aren’t a lot of good alternatives to the JCPOA, although the myth of a better deal will forever be another conservative anti-Obama shibboleth. Jonah Shepp, Daily Intelligencer, "Trump Buys Netanyahu’s Bad Case for Abandoning the Iran Deal," 1 May 2018 There are still those would insist on the last answer, which has been a critical shibboleth for a very long time. A.o. Scott, New York Times, "Is Woody Allen a Great Filmmaker? Discuss," 21 Feb. 2018 Cow’s milk is appallingly resource-intensive to produce, and its reputation as a nutritional mainstay has eroded to near-shibboleth status. Vogue, "Exploring the Wild World of Milk Alternatives," 15 Dec. 2017

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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Last Updated

13 Nov 2018

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The first known use of shibboleth was in 1638

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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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obstinately defiant of authority

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