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

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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 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, 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, 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, 3 Oct. 2019 These critiques of class-action lawsuits amount to a shibboleth among conservatives and big businesses. Kenneth K. Lee, National Review, 2 Dec. 2019 The Partnership’s ad campaign hauls out the familiar shibboleths against healthcare reform. Los Angeles Times, 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, 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.

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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

Time Traveler

The first known use of shibboleth was in 1638

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Cite this Entry

“Shibboleth.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 13 Jun. 2021.

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More Definitions for shibboleth



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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