If someone pronounces Iraq “eye-rack,” he’s probably not a liberal. If he refers to the “Democrat Party,” he’s certainly not a liberal. If he uses the word “community” unironically? Bingo, a liberal. So what do you call this sort of tribal password?
shibboleth (SHIB-oh-lith), the password. From the Hebrew, meaning “grain stalk.”
The word comes from the Hebrew Bible—Judges 12:5-6—in a scene that describes the aftermath of a battle between two tribes. The tribe from Gilead beat the one from Ephraim, then blocked the retreating survivors from crossing the Jordan back to their homeland. Anyone claiming to be a Gileadite was given a test: pronounce the word “shibboleth.” If he said “sibboleth,” that proved he was an Ephraimite, and he was killed on the spot.
According to the scripture, 42,000 Ephraimites were slaughtered over a mispronunciation. Sounds like something Figaro’s terrifying fourth-grade grammar teacher would write.
In fact, grammar itself counts as a kind of systematic shibboleth. There’s no such thing as “correct” grammar. There’s just upper-class grammar and everything else.
And just by saying that, Figaro has proved himself a grass-combing Ephraimite. He’s preparing himself for the slaughter.