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7 Examples of a Shibboleth

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A shibboleth is language that can be used to identify members of a group. The following are illustrative examples.


Shibboleth has a long and dark history beginning with the origin of the term in the Hebrew Bible where it appears in an account of a battle between the Gileadites and Ephraimites. The Gileadites won the battle and the remaining Ephraimites tried to flee. The Gileadites secured the escape route and stopped each person passing to ask them to pronounce Shibboleth, the Hebrew word for the kernel of a grain. Those who could not pronounce the word properly were slaughtered. There are many similar examples in history whereby pronunciation of a difficult word has been used to identify nationality, ethnicity or background. This is often done for some negative reason such as discrimination.


Jargon is any obscure term that is specific to a context or domain. This can often be used to identify an individual's membership in a profession, industry, organization, culture or group. For example, an individual's word choices in a job interview can reveal a lack of experience in an industry by using terms that aren't typically used in that industry. This can be a subtle difference in language that sounds slightly off color to an industry insider such as a job candidate at an investment bank who refers to stocks as stocks as opposed to equities.

Shared Experiences

Shared experiences can act as a shibboleth as you are able to identify obscure information that highlights some commonality. For example, if you meet someone on a flight and they claim they went to the same high school as you, you might be a little suspicious at first. However, if they mention a few teachers that you remember it will immediately be clear that they did indeed go to the same high school.


Shibboleths play a role in social bonding as they highlight shared experiences between people. For example, an organization that uses obscure jargon as part of its culture such that learning this language is part of the process of being accepted into the team.


Argot is language that is intended to be understood by members of a group and not understood by outsiders. This serves as a code to exclude people from a conversation. For example, an academic who uses obscure scientific language such as the term negative control at a dinner party to highlight their education level and status with little regard to being understood by non-scientists.

Inside Jokes

Humor that requires inside information to comprehend. For example, a joke that is only funny to computer science graduates. This can be used either for bonding or to socially exclude someone.
A programmer is at work when his wife calls and asks him to go to the store. She says she needs a gallon of milk, and if they have fresh eggs, buy a dozen. He comes home with 12 gallons of milk.

Social Status

Shibboleths can be used to highlight your social status such as wealth, coolness or intelligence. For example, an individual who drops the names of places on the north shore of Long Island to highlight that they vacation in an expensive and socially exclusive location.


The way that you speak, your name and vocabulary choices may indicate things about your identity such as ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic background, political viewpoints or urban/rural background.
Overview: Shibboleth
Language that can be used to identify members of a group.
Hebrew Bible
Related Concepts
Next: Discrimination


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