I was reading an article about global economics (here) and came across the following sentence.
In particular, the unconventional nature of our situation is making it clear how many people rely not on any model of how the economy works but rather on what the late Paul Samuelson called shibboleths — by which he meant slogans that take the place of hard thinking…
Bang. That really hit me.
Here’s the Wiki on the origin of the word shibboleth.
The term originates from the Hebrew word “shibbóleth” (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain or, in different contexts, “stream, torrent”. It derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/sound (as in shoe), from Gileadites whose dialect did include such a sound.
In the Book of Judges, chapter 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BC), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river’s fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these refugees, the Gileadites put each refugee to a simple test:
Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שיבולת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סיבולת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.
OK so 42,000 were killed because they mispronounced “Shibboleth.” That was then. What about now?
Here are the current definitions of the word.
a : a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning
c : truism, platitude
a : a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group
b : a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others
I am interested in this word because I find that all sides of the aging question are quick to employ shibboleths to support their favored views when what we really need is a stiff dose of careful and open minded thought.
This effort lies at the heart of my work and this blog.