Build your vocabulary with Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day! Each day a Merriam-Webster editor offers insight into a fascinating new word -- explaining its meaning, current use, and little-known details about its origin.
January 5th, 2016
Episode 415 of 825 episodes
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for January 5, 2016 is: shibboleth \SHIB-uh-luth\ noun 1 : catchword, slogan 2 : a widely held belief or truism 3 : a custom or usage regarded as distinctive of a particular group Examples: The town's name is a shibboleth: locals know its pronunciation does not reflect its French spelling but others use the Gallic pronunciation of the more famous European city. "For Gorbachev, schooled in the rustyshibbolethsof party ideology, the West was intent on destroying the Soviet Union." — Vladimir Tismaneanu, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 Nov. 2015 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 left out 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.