I wrote a lighthearted post about shibboleths back in 2011 that received little notice, so I feel justified in reusing the title for today’s little article. However, this time I’ll use one of the other meanings of the word: “a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth”.

In the Torah and the Christian Bible there is the tale about the Ephraimites who had been defeated by the Gileadites, and tried to retreat by sneaking across the Jordan River which was held by the Gileadites. The Gileadites were aware of the scheme so they asked any soldiers who attempted to cross if he was an Ephraimite. When the soldier answered “no” he was asked the watchword “shibboleth” (stream in Hebrew). Gileadites pronounced the watchword as “shibboleth” but Ephramite people pronounced it as “sibboleth”. Any person who failed to pronounce the first syllable with the “sh” sound, was executed on the spot. In modern times, the concept has gone on to mean a password or test phrase. We see these when logging onto bank websites to check our account balances. Hopefully the bank will not shoot us if we forget our test phrases.

We can easily discover other type of shibboleths in various mission statements of companies and organizations. They are lofty phrases and sayings that make great advertising and public relations copy. The company or organization may or may not actually live up to the platitudes contained in their mission statements. A common shibboleth used by motor vehicle dealers is the claim that they give car buyers “the best deal in town”.

There are a great many one-word shibboleths. Frugality is an often used example. The spirit of the word implies that the user has little or no desire for money and material things, but many people use the word as a cover for selfishness and stinginess. Diligence is another common shibboleth. Its core implication indicates a deep concern for justice and virtue, but some people use it as an alibi to justify exclusion and oppression. These examples show us how easy it is to convert wise words into tools of greed and prejudice.

I’ll conclude today’s very short post with this excerpt by the 20th century French writer, Jules Roy: “We have regressed to the times of the wars of religion; divided, betrayed, threatened if we do not think as the others think or if we refuse to use the same formulas and cry the same watchwords. And tomorrow, ready to kill each other in the name of free will. Refusing to consider the realities he finds disagreeable, each adversary blinds himself with his own convictions and no longer considers those that might help him to comprehend the problem.”

I hope you can derive some benefit from this reflection.


The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the often used shibboleth. “If you work a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

About swabby429

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

2 Responses to Shibboleths

  1. The quote at the end is oh so true. As for the word that inspired your essay, I had only a flimsy idea about its meaning until a few minutes ago.

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