Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘Bible’

Muddying the shibboleth

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I am fascinated by words. I like words with complicated history and many layers of meaning, enabling them to encapsulate complicated ideas or sentiments — like the word Abend (“evening”) in Hofmannsthal’s poem “Ballade des äusseren Lebens” (Ballad of the outer life):

Und dennoch sagt der viel, der Abend sagt,

ein Wort, daraus Tiefsinn und Trauer rinnt

wie schwerer Honig aus den hohlen Waben.

And yet one says so much just saying “evening”,

a word from which profundity and pathos drip

like thick honey from the hollows of the honeycomb.

Often I seem to be the last to notice that a word has changed its vernacular usage, and then I see all at once several appearances of the “new” meaning. One example is this report in The New Republic on the NY gubernatorial campaign of Cynthia Nixon:

If nothing else, perhaps she’ll run a strong enough campaign to make the Democratic Party reconsider its credentialism shibboleth.

I have no opinion about the political candidacy, and I never saw Ms Nixon’s television show, but I grieve for the word shibboleth.

Its original meaning is a word whose proper usage marks someone as belonging to the in-group. (It was the word for a ‘stream’, and the Gileadites in a civil war between Hebrew tribes narrated in chapter 12 of the Old Testament book of Judges used it as a watchword, since the opposing Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the initial consonant correctly. Rather like the story of American troops in WWII in the Pacific identifying Japanese in the dark by demanding they pronounce the word lollapalooza.) There is plenty of scope for applying this concept in the debates over political correctness and social justice warriors. But I guess it is doomed to become just a fancy synonym for a petty requirement. It is probably beyond saving.

The original story:

Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives from Ephraim, you Gileadites—in the heart of Ephraim and Manasseh.” Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

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