, Newburyport, MA


December 10, 2012

Shibboleth: Pronounce it correctly or die


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.

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