Recently, on a quiet evening, my wife and I were leafing through some intellectual writings. At least, my wife Ellie was.
While reading a piquant review of the film Gone Girl in The New York Review of Books, she came across the word “shibboleth.” Since asking me for definitions can be easier than using the Internet (though sometimes more painful), I proceeded to impress her by paraphrasing the narrative in Judges 12:1–6: In the aftermath of battle, the Ephraimite enemy was exposed by his inability to pronounce the word “shibboleth,” intoning instead “sibboleth.”
Alas, my wife patiently pointed out that this definition of “shibboleth” did not fit into the context created by the NYRB reviewer. “How the mighty had fallen!” I thought. I had pierced the seemingly invincible armor of lexical inerrancy on the part of a NYRB correspondent.
Allow me to observe that I was at least half-right. The Biblical usage of “shibboleth,” inherited from Judges 12, is still part of our language, but for the most part it has been eclipsed by newer meanings.