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Frak is a Shibboleth!

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.)

"Let's get he frak outta here!" -Kara Thrace, S4E7

Recent Comments

  1. M

    I use “frak” all the time, but I got it from Veronica Mars (which got it from BSG). I don’t know if that means I’m initiated or not…

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cassie, Lauren. Lauren said: RT @leanoir: RT @OUPblogUSA: FRAK! A shibboleth: http://bit.ly/dO0Hgd [My favorite made-up swear word ever! Use it all the time, haha.] […]

  3. Ray Girvan

    I did once run into someone who exclaimed “Grud on a greenie!” – which comes from the Judge Dredd comic http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judge_Dredd

  4. JLH

    I still use “frelling” (from “Farscape”) on occasion, although I don’t think I’ve ever used “drokk” or “stomm” from “Judge Dredd.” I recall the DC Comics character Lobo used to use “bastich,” the closest you could get to using “bastard” for a general audience. Oh, there was “sneck” from, I think, Dredd’s stable mate “Robo Hunter.” Now that I *did* use; you can put a lot of venom into “sneck.”

  5. WJCarpenter

    A few years ago, I spent a week in Scheveningen, a beach-side suburb of Den Haag. I learned then that the name “Scheveningen” was used as a shibboleth during WW II because German natives had a difficult time pronouncing it with the Dutch “sch” sound.

    I also first got educated about “shibbotleth” from The West Wing. Before that, I recognized the word as something vaguely biblical, but I had the completely nonsense notion that it was some kind of sword-like weapon.

  6. Nerd

    I have used ‘shiny’, ‘lulz’, and a few other random internet/geek terms in normal conversation, and people get confused pretty fast. It’s awesome how Geek/Nerd/whatever you’d call it has become its own subculture. Makes me happy :D

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