Usually, I think of Latinate words as a means to elevate the register of my writing. Those terms simply sound more formal. They are not, however, our only option. It’s hard, for a moment, to think of words from Hebrew that have entered formal writing, yet every day that I log onto one of our university servers I see it.
So what is a shibboleth? It’s more than the name of
a campus computer a communications protocol. The OED helps a great deal here, as the word changed meanings over the centuries. The term, itself hard enough to pronounce, originally meant a term that foreigners would have a tough time pronouncing. That could “out” a spy or at least show who was who in ancient times. Then the meaning morphed, to eventually become a custom or habit that acted as a shibboleth. Another branching meaning came to mean a taboo, in the sense of a “moral formula” one must follow to become part of a sect. Consider Islam’s and Judaism’s bans on eating pork.
This sense of the term extends beyond matters of religious faith. Consider, for either of our political parties, that certain positions and slogans are sacrosanct (a nice word for another week!). Defy them and you are shown the door.
Update 10/29/20, thanks to Lee Parker, UR Information Services: “Within the IT realm, Shibboleth is the name of a specific single-sign-on ‘custom or habit.’ Shibboleth allows you to maintain fewer usernames/passwords. . . . This is analogous to using your driver’s license to buy beer: the state validates your age so each store doesn’t have to do so independently.”
What are your shibboleths? Which have you abandoned?
And why name a computer Shibboleth?
Image of Karl Marx God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, because it’s the best movie version of the Almighty, ever. And I break several shibboleths by posting it.