{Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth”.’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth”, because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion. Judges 12:5-6, NJB}

Shibboleth is one of those words that has evolved to include expanded meanings and useage.  Throughout history, as in the opening example, one group uses a word or cultural practice to distinguish themselves from outsiders.

For instance, during European battle in World War II, American sentries may have requested a password known only to those who follow American style college football.  If the answer was wrong, the respondent likely was immediately shot.

Place names make great shibboleths.  The Arkansas River is a good one.  In most areas, people pronounce it “ar-kan-saw”, but people from the state of Kansas usually say “ar-kan-sas”.

One of my favorites is the town of Arab, Alabama.  Instead of the conventional pronouncer, “air-ub” the locals call it “ay-rab”.

My town’s name is an interesting shibboleth.  Norfolk, Nebraska is pronounced differently depending upon custom or dictionary pronunciation.  If you work for the media or in public relations, you’ve like been instructed to say “nor-folk”.  Some people who have taken residence here from the east say “nor-fuk” this is becoming rare.  The people who have a long family history of residence in this town say “nor-fork”.  There are folk stories that justify each pronunciation of the town.

The “nor-folk” crowd sometimes cites that the town was named after Norfolk, England.  The “nor-fuk” people say its name came from Norfolk, Virginia.  The “nor-fork” bunch claims it is a shortened version of the north fork of the Elkhorn River.  In spite of the determined media useage of “nor-folk”, you can still spot the traditional Norfolkan by their useage of “nor-fork”.

Gough Street in San Francisco has a wide variety of attempted pronunciations by tourists.  Usually something along the line of go or goo.  It’s actually pronounced “goff” rhyming with cough.

On the same note if you say “San Fran” or “Frisco”, you’re an outsider.  Residents say “San Francisco” or “The City”.


A person can get more serious and say that the letter of the law is more important than the spirit of the law.  Perhaps one could distinguish between the symbol and the meaning behind it.  Which is more important?  What do you sacrifice?  The flag of a country or the spirit the flag represents?  A perennial debate in the USA is just that question.  It is a shibboleth of both the right and the left believers.  How upset do you get if you see a depiction of a flag burning?

I’m sure you can think of more shibboleths.  I hope we can use them less as features of exclusion and more as jargon shortcuts for insiders.


The Blue Jay of Happiness’ favorite shibboleths are songs recorded by “one hit wonders”.

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in Controversy, cultural highlights, History. Bookmark the permalink.

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