, Newburyport, MA


December 10, 2012

Shibboleth: Pronounce it correctly or die


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

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