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Basic Information

The Book of Judges in the Bible at one point describes a battle between the Gileadites, (members of the tribes on the east side of the Jordan River, and the tribe of Ephraim, (on the West side). The Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites, and were also able to seize the fords to the Jordan, so that soldiers trying to flee from the battle had to pass through Gilead checkpoints to get back to Ephraim. Anyone trying to pass the ford was told to say the word "Shibboleth" (a word meaning either a stalk of wheat, or flood or torrent). Since the Ephraim accent differed from that of the Gileadites, it would come out sounding like "Sibboleth", and so the enemy soldiers were identified. (Judges 12:4-6)

There have been other instances in history of passwords designed to trip up and identify a spy. Perhaps the most well-known example is the word "Lallapallooza", used to identify possible Japanese spies during World War II. British paratroopers used "Whoa Mohammed" in a similar manner since the Germans found it similarly hard to replicate - originally picked up by imitating "yodelling" herdsmen in North Africa, the cry went with them through Sicily, Normandy and many other places as far as Arnhem, where the majority of the veterans familiar with the tradition were killed or captured.

In modern times the word "shibboleth" is sometimes used figuratively to mean a "code word" used to identify oneself as the member of a certain group. For example, a politician might pay lip service to "Fiscal Responsibility" and "Limited Government" in order to gain the acceptance and approval of Conservatives, even if his policies would actually do the opposite. And, of course, every political group has its own shibboleths which members are expected to invoke.

See Also


Game and Story Use

  • If your game system has detailed rules for languages, you might make a player roll against his language skill when impersonating a member of a different culture to see if the accent trips him up.
    • Or, contrawise, a perception roll to see if he notices an NPC spy's lapse
  • Colloquialisms and habits of speech can also be used to identify a person's origin. Do you call it Pop or Soda?
    • Paging Henry Higgins…
    • In the Dorothy L. Sayers story "The Article in Question", Lord Peter spots a French maid as an imposter when he overhears her say something casting doubt on her identity.
      • No jokes about soap please.
  • Cultural information can also be used as a kind of password. The other classic example from WWII is "Who won the 19-whatever World Series?"
    • The old pulp-era RPG Justice, Inc. included a list of World Series winners for just such use.
    • This can easily go wrong, as one sentry supposedly found when discovering that the general neither knew nor cared about Mickey Mouse's girlfriend.
  • The Godendag, a medieval weapon, takes its name from a similar shibboleth.
  • In the 2022 Ukraine Conflict, the words Ukrazaliznitsa (a railway company) and Palianitsa (a type of bread) are apparently used as shibboleths as there is a distinct difference in their pronunciation between Russian and Ukrainian.
  • Shibboleths have some limits that you might discover the hard way:
    • They don't catch someone with your own accent, whether because they trained to get rid of it or because they were originally from your own country.
    • They can return false positives if you have native allies, as one Greek army apparently learned.
    • They require that you clearly hear the other person, which isn't guaranteed if there's shelling going on, and forget about it if one of you is deaf or mute.
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