A Shibboleth, like a spell, is a word that has incredible power. It is a cultural signifier of both belonging and division. Creating a shibboleth doesn’t mean bringing more meaning to a word, but rather removing meaning from a word. Nearly every shibboleth is nonsense. The word Shibboleth comes from ancient Hebrew and means either the head of a wheat stalk or other grain, or a storm, torrent or tempest.
The word “Shibboleth” was the first word transformed in this way, stripped of it’s meaning and used to identify an alien culture, separating the Ephraimites from the Gileadites in the book of Judges:
And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.