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Sep 23, 2013
This week's theme
Words about words

This week's words
lapsus linguae

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About 12 years ago when I moved from the East Coast to Washington state, a reporter for The Seattle Times stopped by. After the interview, she wrote down the name of a couple of cities in Washington state (Spokane and Puyallup) and asked me to pronounce their names. I said SPO-kayn and poo-YAHL-up (instead of spo-KAN and pyoo-AL-uhp) and she smiled. She had proved the obvious: I was new to the state.

When I see an email that closes with "Respectfully," I can immediately tell it's from someone in the military. You can think of that as a shibboleth that identifies the sender of the note as someone in uniform.

What shibboleth do you know? It could be one that's specific to your family, neighborhood, city, workplace, profession, or beyond. Share them at contest@wordsmith.org. Be sure to include your location (city/state/country). Selected responses will each receive one of these prizes:
o A signed copy of any of my books
o A copy of the word game One Up!
o The T-shirt "AWAD to the wise is sufficient"

Send your responses by this Friday. Selected entries will be featured in this weekend's AWADmail. (See contest results)


(SHIB-uh-lith, -leth)

1. The use of a word or pronunciation that distinguishes a group of people.
2. A slogan, belief, or custom that's now considered outmoded.

According to the Book of Judges in the Bible, the Gileadites used the Hebrew word shibboleth (ear of corn; stream) to identify the fleeing Ephraimites who couldn't pronounce the sh sound. 42,000 Ephraimites were slaughtered. Earliest documented use: 1382.

Some massacres in which the pronunciation of a word played a key part:
Parsley Massacre
Battle of the Golden Spurs
Sicilian Vespers
The meaning of the term has now widened. It could be applied to anything, not just the pronunciation of a word, that distinguishes people. It could be a way of eating, dressing, etc.

"Kurdish Iraq's two dominant parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, fought a civil war in the 1990s. Ordinary words turned into shibboleths. Using the word afrat for 'woman' revealed a link with the KDP; the PUK used the word zhin. Today, the two parties share power. This has resulted in an attempt at linguistic fusion that makes Ferhadi shudder: whenever political leaders refer to women, they say 'afrat and zhin' to show that they have overcome old divisions."
Sophie Hardach; 'Professor, You're Dividing My Nation'; The Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington, DC); Jun 23, 2013.

"Osborne's allies say his urge to win is greater than his eagerness to parrot Thatcherite shibboleths."
Rafael Behr; The Politics Column; New Statesman (London, UK); Jun 28, 2013.

See more usage examples of shibboleth in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.

The best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with. -Bruce Springsteen, musician (b. 1949)

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