Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Yinz is a shibboleth.

Occasionally I come across a word that has such a compelling spoken form or appearance that I file it away for study at a later date. Today, for some reason, I thought of the word “shibboleth”. I had no idea what it meant, but believed it had something to do with uttered curses. It turns out that I wasn’t even close to its definition. It’s a term tied to a very specific event, biblical in nature. Apparently there was a war between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, in which the former prevailed. When the latter group tried to circumspectly escape across the Jordan River, the Gileadites set up checkpoints to impede their passage. I guess there was no way to tell an Ephraimite by appearance, so a test was necessary.

“Shibboleth” is the Hebrew word for “the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain”. In context it could also refer to a stream or torrent. It seems that its distinguishing characteristic to the Gileadites was that the dialect of the Ephraimites did not include the “sh” sound. Instead they said the word with a hard “s”. Once an Ephraimite was caught out, he/she was quickly dispatched to death. There was no hiding from the tongue’s inability to articulate this word. After this event, the definition of “shibboleth” slowly shifted toward its modern day usage. Now it refers to anything that can specifically identify a person as part of a social or regional culture.

The stakes are rarely as high as they were during the time of the origination of the new meaning of “shibboleth”. Likely no one has ever been killed for saying “y’all” or “youse guys” instead of “yinz”. On the other hand, I’ve learned that the word “lollapalooza” was used in this manner by American soldiers to identify Japanese infiltrators during WWII. Similarly the G.I.’s used baseball knowledge to distinguish Americans from German spies. God help those who preferred basketball, or no sport at all. I guess they faced a minor risk of being shot by their own comrades at a sentry post. Regardless, this factoid attests to the importance of the sporting life in the United States.

Indeed I’ve been aware of fandom as an essential component in accessing the world of the red-blooded patriotic male. If you go out to the bars and have to interact with a stranger, it helps to be able to toss around some names, whether individuals or favored teams. Being able to do this goes a long way toward identifying yourself as kinfolk without actually having to reveal anything about your personal life. If you are out having a drink on your own, this can be important to remember. I’ve known more than a few women who have adopted this trick in order to make contact or cadge free drinks. But of course there’s something rather unseemly about that, right?

While I don’t necessarily enjoy having to invest time in collecting a rudimentary base of sports knowledge, I will admit to being taken with the idea of a shibboleth as a password. How great would it be to live in a larger society with members that could be identified by a common appreciation of art and literature? Perhaps the answer is “not so much” for the intellectually lazy. Anyway, I suppose I am capable of experiencing a special enjoyment from being an adherent to a smaller, more select group. As our culture becomes more and more stratified due to the ever-expanding access to a wealth of content spanning centuries, we will likely see an increasing reliance on all the forms and varieties of the shibboleth. How delectable…

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Anonymous spritely leprachaun said...

Yay for this post!!! Assimilate thy palate to my socio-cultural gibbet.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I'm working on it, believe you me.

9:34 AM  

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