Shibboleth is an unusual sounding word, in English it means a test to distinguish someone as an outsider, belonging to a different profession, class or country. It has also come to mean a belief associated with a particular group.

This meaning has a biblical origin. In the book of Judges chapter 12 the Gileadites, under Jepthah, defeat the Hebrew tribe of Ephraim in a battle. Following the battle some of the Ephraimites escape, and the Gileadites, in order to identify them ask to say “Shibboleth”, the word for a flood, or ear of corn. Because Gileadites and Ephraimites speak a different dialect of Hebrew the Ephraimites said “sibboleth”.

This sense of shibboleth as a watchword was first recorded in 1630, and by the 1860s it had evolved to an outdated belief belonging to a group.

Shibboleth itself in Hebrew (שיבולת) is from the root ש־ב־ל (sh-b-l), which is a cognate of Akkadian šubulta and Aramaic šubbaltā. Aramaic is a middle eastern language part of the same language group as Hebrew that became the lingua franca of the Assyrian empire, Babylonian empire, Achaemenid empire and the Parthian and Sasanian empires in the first millennium BC. Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus. Akkadian is the oldest  attested semitic language of ancient mesopotamia and used a cuneiform writing system. It is named after the city of Akkad, but precedes the founding of the city.


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