, Newburyport, MA

December 10, 2012

Shibboleth: Pronounce it correctly or die

As Good As Your Word, Jonathan Wells
Newburyport Daily News

---- — In ancient times, the Bible recounts (Judges 12: 4-6, for you scholars), a war broke out between the Ephraimites and the men of Gilead, and the Ephraimites, defeated, attempted to cross a river ford held by the Gileadites. “[W]hen those Ephraimites which were escaped said, ‘Let me go over’ the men of Gilead said unto [each], ‘Art thou an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘Nay,’ then said they unto him, “Say now ‘Shibboleth’ and he said ‘Sibboleth’: for he could not frame to pronounce [it] right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.”

“A shibboleth is a word, sound, or custom that a person unfamiliar with it … does not pronounce or perform correctly as perceived by those who are familiar with it.” It can therefore identify those who do not belong to a particular nation, class or group of people. (My definition is Wikipedia-improved-upon). In the case of the Ephraimites, they spoke the same language as the Gileadites, but their inability to pronounce “sh” evidently resulted from the fact that the tribes had lived in different regions for some time. Forty-two thousand is an awful price to pay, and I suspect the test was not carried out under what might be called “clinical conditions.” Based upon a similar shibboleth test, it appears that thirty thousand people suspected of being trespassing Haitians were killed by Rafael Trujillo in 1937.

During World War II, shibboleths were used to identify suspected infiltrators. For example, unknown persons approaching a guard post in the Pacific theater of war were challenged and told to pronounce the word “Lollapalooza.” If they said “Rorraparooza,” they were likely to be shot forthwith, since the Japanese could not handle the “el” sound. In 1923 the Japanese had themselves used the shibboleth of ba bi bu be bo to distinguish ethnic Koreans from Japanese, as it was assumed that Koreans would be unable to pronounce the line correctly. All people who failed the test were killed with great cruelty and wrong being done in the process.

Although wholesale slaughter seems no longer to result, the concept of the shibboleth remains with us in a much less threatening way as a word that tells us something important about another person, apart from the word’s meaning. When I was just starting to practice law in Massachusetts, I had occasion to take a telephone message for my (to-be) partner, which went roughly: “Gene ____ called. He is at Bill Ricker’s.” “Who,” said my partner, “is Bill Ricker?” Upon closer examination it turned out of course that Gene was in Billerica. I knew the name, but would have pronounced it something like “Billair’ica” (and hopefully not been slain).

I subsequently discovered that there are a great many places in Massachusetts with their own special pronunciations. Quincy is not “kwinsee,” but “kwinzee” (apparently the way the Quincy family pronounced it). There is Wooburn— or even Woobin. lists many other place-shibboleths: Chemsfid, Conkd, Air, Pepril and so on.

There are many other states with like shibboleths. If you go to southeast Alaska and refer to the Tlingit Indians there as “Tlingits” and not “Klinkits,” you will be thought a rank cheechako, as you would if you called an Aleut an Aloot not an Aly-oot. There are lots of pitfalls for out-of-staters, but luckily no serious consequences — yet. Meanwhile, try Washington state’s “Puyallup” and “Skagit.”

In England, at least, the shibboleth appears in distinctions of class. As Henry Higgins observed of Eliza Doolittle, she speaks “an English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days” because it marks her indelibly as a member of a lower class. In 1956, the celebrated aristocratic English author Nancy Mitford edited a book called “Noblesse Oblige” in which she pointed out a number of the words that enable members of the upper class to keep at arm’s length those who, no matter how bright, rich or talented, do not belong to it.

You will be shibbolethed if you say any of the following: dinner instead of lunch for the midday meal; dentures instead of false teeth; couch instead of sofa; wealthy instead of rich; ill when you’re sick; home instead of house (my favorite annoyance) as the real-estate brokers do; pass on or pass away instead of die.

The test may be the accent; if you are in an affluent Philadelphia suburb you certainly do not say “tar” for tire, or call the Philadelphia Inquirer the “Inquar” — as I have often heard done. You may even speak in an upper-class idiom called “Main Line Lockjaw,” (an example of which I was recently delighted to hear).

In Germany, it is said, a sort of body language test was used by the Germans to smoke out even excellent German speakers. In a Gasthaus, the suspect was induced to order three more beers with sign language. If he held up his first three fingers, he was an infiltrator , for (it is said) Germans will instead always hold up the thumb and the first two fingers to indicate “three.” I say, let’s have another mild and bitter on that, what?


Jonathan Wells writes from Newbury. He can be contacted at