By Michelle Rafferty
127 years ago today the Oxford English Dictionary published its first volume (A to ANT), so I thought I’d pay tribute with the story of how I recently learned the word “shibboleth”:
While rubbing elbows with fancy people at the recent OED re-launch party, I had the chance to meet contributors Matt Kohl and Katherine Connor Martin. Naturally the topic of conversation came to words, and I brought up one I had been using a lot lately: frak (the fictional version of “fuck” on Battlestar Galactica). I explained that I just started watching the show (better late than never, no?) and had been testing “frak” out in conversation to pick up other fans. Matt said, oh that’s a “shibboleth.”
A whateth? According to the OED:
The Hebrew word used by Jephthah as a test-word by which to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the sh) from his own men the Gileadites (Judges xii. 4–6).
Matt told me that he had first heard the word on The West Wing. Martin Sheen sums it up nicely: a password. A more recent sense in the OED defines shibboleth as:
A catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded.
The sect, in my case, is Battlestar enthusiasts. I e-mailed Katherine later for more examples. She said:
I think politics affords some good examples. The pro-life movement is distinguishable by its use of certain buzz-words (abortionist, abortion-doctor, etc.), and the pro-choice movement by terms like “anti-choice”. Republicans use the word “democrat” as an adjective, while Democrats use the adjective “democratic”. If you ever hear someone talk about the “Democrat Party” on cable TV, you can be sure s/he is a conservative.
Shibboleth, it’s frakking everywhere!
(Thank you to Matt and Katherine for your countless hours spent keeping the OED alive, and for helping me realize the educational value of my addiction.)