shibboleth


noun

  1. a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons.
  2. a slogan; catchword.
  3. a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.

noun

  1. a belief, principle, or practice which is commonly adhered to but which is thought by some people to be inappropriate or out of date
  2. a custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to, or as a stumbling block to becoming a member of, a particular social class, profession, etc

n.late 14c., the Hebrew word shibboleth, meaning “flood, stream,” also “ear of corn;” in Judges xii:4-6. It was the password used by the Gileadites to distinguish their own men from fleeing Ephraimites, because Ephraimites could not pronounce the -sh- sound. Hence the figurative sense of “watchword” (first recorded 1630s), which evolved by 1862 to “outmoded slogan still adhered to.” A similar test-word was cicera “chick pease,” used by the Italians to identify the French (who could not pronounce it correctly) during the massacre called the Sicilian Vespers (1282). In the Old Testament, shibboleth was a password used by the Israelites. It was chosen because their enemies could not pronounce it.

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