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;Judges Chapter 12
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.
The Shibboleth is weaponized language, language imbued with the power to kill, very nearly directly. It is, in essence, the real-world equivalent of Avada Kedavara.
During World War II, American soldiers used the word “lollapalooza” to identify and execute Japanese soldiers sneaking across the American front line.
Shibboleths are part of every day life. There are probably a few you are used to hearing all the time. I live in Oregon, and anyone that pronounces the state “Oregoan” instead of “Oregone” can easily be identified as a non-resident.
Shibboleths can function as secret codes, ways for members of underground societies to identify each other without revealing themselves. When Edward Snowden met Laura Poitras to begin their documentary, Citizen Four, he had to signal to her without revealing who he was or he might risk extradition. He told her to look around the lobby of the Honk Kong hotel where they were to meet, and he would be sitting in the lobby trying to solve a rubix cube. The rubix cube was the shibboleth.
Creating a shibboleth removes its original meaning and suffuses it with power, even if this power is only emotional. The process transforms a word into a symbol. A shibboleth can make one group feel that they belong, while the very same symbol can fill others with fear. A shibboleth can be subtle, a fleeting hand gesture, a way of speaking, saying pop instead of soda. Division is essential to the nature of a shibboleth. A symbol of inclusion cannot be a Shibboleth, there is nothing to weaponize.
Neo Nazi groups around the world wear a particular black and yellow polo shirt by Fred Perry, as a pseudo uniform and a way of identifying each other.
A Shibboleth consumes meaning and replaces it with belonging. It is important to understand how they work, and to resist them in our own lives. Why do we need to belong? What are the consequences of not belonging? How can our lives be enriched by stepping outside of our boundaries and experiencing something new? It could be a culture we don’t understand, or a person with a different background.
In 2019 America has become Shibboleth nation, but we can change that with every interaction. A shibboleth is just a word, and even as it is given power, we can take it away.
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