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Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day for July 14, 2021 is:

shibboleth • SHIB-uh-luth  • noun

1 a : a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning

b : a widely held belief

c : truism, platitude

2 a : a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group

b : a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others


“… in Britain, whether a person pronounces hs is still a significant shibboleth.” — Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars, 2011

“Even sillier was the old shibboleth that China’s embrace of capitalist reforms … would lead to constitutional government. But the ability to buy a new cellphone never ensures the right to vote for a candidate of one’s choice.” — Victor Davis Hanson, The Chicago Tribune, 3 Oct. 2019

Did you know?

The Bible’s Book of Judges (12:4-6) tells the story of the Ephraimites, who, after they were routed by the Gileadite army, tried to retreat by sneaking across a ford of the Jordan River that was held by their enemy. The Gileadites, wary of the ploy, asked every soldier who tried to cross if he was an Ephraimite. When the soldier said “no,” he was asked to say shibbōleth (which means “stream” in Hebrew). Gileadites pronounced the word “shibboleth,” but Ephramites said “sibboleth.” Anyone who didn’t pronounce the initial sh was killed on the spot. When English speakers first borrowed shibboleth, they used it to mean “test phrase,” but it has acquired additional meanings since that time.

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