Discovering the evolution of words is a constant pleasure. I once asked Magnus Magnusson, the late television quizmaster, if he’d managed to retain any of the million-odd pieces of information that had whizzed past him over the years on Mastermind. Very few, he said; but one was the derivation of the word “shibboleth”. It means, of course, a slogan, catchphrase or “password” beloved of a certain group, sect or political party. He’d been delighted to find (in The Oxford English Dictionary) that it was the old Hebrew word for an ear of corn; and that, according to the Bible, during the war between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, it was used as a lethal password – Ephraimites pronounced it “skibboleth” rather than “shibboleth” and any hapless soldier who couldn’t say it properly was promptly executed.
Again – how pleasing to know this. It’s precisely the kind of detail you’ll find in a dictionary – and only in a paper dictionary with words on pages. There’s shibboleth, and its fascinating etymology, in the current OED, and in my 10th-edition Chambers. But if I look it up online, on www.dictionary.cambridge.org, I’m given only the definition.
Shhhhhhh — don’t tell him about Wikipedia. And especially not the Wikipedia entry on “shibboleth”.