shibboleth

noun

shib·​bo·​leth ˈshi-bə-ləth How to pronounce shibboleth (audio)
 also  -ˌleth
1
a
: 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 lipsJoseph Epstein
b
: a widely held belief
today this book publishing shibboleth is a mythL. A. Wood
c
: truism, platitude
some truth in the shibboleth that crime does not payLee Rogow
2
a
: a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group
accent was … a shibboleth of social classVivian 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 mankindOsbert Sitwell

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 shibbōleth (which means "stream" in Hebrew). Gileadites pronounced the word "shibboleth," but Ephramites said "sibboleth." Anyone who didn't pronounce 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 As far back as 2015, when all of Washington was under the influence of unfettered free-trade shibboleths, Trump warned about the dangers of economic dependencies, built up over decades of liberalization, that could be exploited for geopolitical leverage. Andrew Byers, Foreign Affairs, 1 July 2024 One by one, the shibboleths that our public-health authorities put forward as reliable guidelines for behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic are being revealed as scientifically baseless health theater. The Editors, National Review, 17 May 2024 But for those who remain beholden to the shibboleths that once justified that act of national self-harm, the Times’ acknowledgment of the obvious might be valuable. The Editors, National Review, 20 Mar. 2024 Musk’s willingness to upend auto manufacturing shibboleths has also forced his legacy competitors to seek new efficiencies. WIRED, 21 Sep. 2023 Nothing is sacrificed to the shibboleth of good taste. Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 4 Sep. 2023 Far from being a shibboleth of evil, the company is like any other trying to turn a profit in the Western world in 2023, which comes with its own issues and frustrations separate from the ones posited by Kristof in his viral article. Ej Dickson, Rolling Stone, 16 Mar. 2023 Along with the shibboleth that a failure to dominate encourages cop killing, the nineties study helped implant a second myth in police culture as well—that stopping cars is exceptionally dangerous to officers. David D. Kirkpatrick, The New Yorker, 28 Jan. 2023 Saka has blown up that racist shibboleth by demonstrating an innate tactical knowledge. Charlie Campbell, Time, 13 Oct. 2022

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'shibboleth.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

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

First Known Use

1638, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of shibboleth was in 1638

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Cite this Entry

“Shibboleth.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shibboleth. Accessed 12 Jul. 2024.

Kids Definition

shibboleth

noun
shib·​bo·​leth ˈshib-ə-ləth How to pronounce shibboleth (audio)
 also  -ˌleth
1
a
: a slogan especially of a party or group
b
: an idea or saying that is commonly believed
2
: some behavior or use of language that identifies a person as belonging to a group
Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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