Posted by: Jack Henry | January 18, 2022

Editor’s Corner: Shibboleth

Good morning, word lovers!

The word shibboleth has come up twice recently, which surprises me, because I don’t ever remember hearing it or seeing it before. The meaning intrigues me: it is a word used as a test for distinguishing friend from foe. These days, we can use shibboleths to indicate who is part of our in-group.

Grammar Girl first brought the word to my attention. She provided this origin information:

The word "shibboleth" itself was an old Hebrew word meaning both "ear of corn" and "flood or stream." The way we use it today in the in-group-out-group way comes from the Biblical story of the Gileadites, who used the word to identify and kill Ephraimites. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the "sh" sound, so "shibboleth" came out sounding wrong, like "sibboleth," making them instantly identifiable as they were trying to cross enemy lines.

Grammar Girl goes on to explain how militaries and mobs have used pronunciation to identify enemies or outsiders. And, less ominously, she explains that people in certain communities can tell who is a non-native by how they pronounce certain words.

The word shibboleth came up again in another resource I rely on: Daily Writing Tips. This article was titled “We Gotta Use Words,” and the gist is that daily conversations and news sources have “become boiling pots of initialisms,” which can serve as shibboleths that separate folks who know from those who do not.

Some initialisms (the abbreviation of words to their first letters, like U.S. for United States) and acronyms (initials that create a word, like NASA) are useful because they are well-known to everyone, and some are useful because they save us from having to remember long technical terms, such as PDF, FTP, DNA, etc. However, if you are using uncommon abbreviations and not spelling them out when you first introduce them, you run the risk of excluding, or at least annoying, some people.

The Daily Writing Tips article makes this point: “Words themselves are slippery vehicles for thought, but initialisms set up a secondary barrier that can obscure meaning or serve as shibboleths.”

In my editing world, I come across a lot of acronyms and initialisms that are not spelled out. If the text is intended to be used only by people in a specific group, this may not be problem; however, the safer tack is to clarify what an initialism stands for the first time it is used, just to make sure everyone can follow along—consider this a friendly reminder. Make sure all of us are part of your in-group.

For the next month or so, while Kara is on family leave, I’ll be sending only one Editor’s Corner article each week. We’ll get back to our normal twice-a-week schedule soon. Enjoy the day!

Donna Bradley Burcher |Technical Editor, Advisory | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

Pronouns she/her/hers

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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