SHIBBOLETH, n. A doctrine or principle once held essential by a particular group or party but now seen as rather old-hat, if not abandoned altogether. It is probably a comment on the nature of life and mutability, rather than on etymological processes, that the original meaning was a password or other identifying sign, such as an opinion or style of dress, that distinguished the members of a particular group because of their unique attachment to it. Thus advocacy of the nationalization of industry was a shibboleth of the political left wing in former years in a sense quite different from that in which it is now their shibboleth. Just how important it was in earlier times to be on the right side of a shibboleth can be judged from the original usage in Judges 12:6: "... and it was so that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilea said unto him [sic] Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; 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..."
Each Tuesday, we’ll offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. You can purchase all or any of the four Superior Person’s Books of Words from the Godine website. Shibboleth appears in the first.