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Jephthah leading his troops into battle

In the book of Judges in the Old Testament, the people of Gilead battle the Ephraimites.  In order to discern between friend and foe at the crossing of the River Jordan, the Gileadites ask each stranger one question:

Say now aShibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.

The Ephraimites couldn't produce the "sh" sound, and thus were discovered (and slaughtered). 

The story reminds me of when I was in the MTC preparing for my Church mission to French-speaking Canada. I had studied French for years, but of course still had an American accent despite my best efforts. Two of the French members of our training district teased me and others about our inability to pronounce écureuil, the French word for "squirrel." (Because, you know, that's a word that comes up often in Gospel discussions--not.)

I countered by challenging them with phrases like "Thus sayeth the Lord," because the "th" sound is very difficult for native French speakers. They would only be able to say, "Zus sayess ze Lord." (Of course, it sounded charming, unlike my attempts at écureuil.)

In modern usage, though, "shibboleth" has a broader meaning than in stories like this, extending to include any word or phrase that sets a group of people apart. It could be a quote from a book or a movie, or a song lyric, or the name of a hero of popular culture. For example, if I say, "You're using coconuts!" or "Anybody want a peanut?" or "What on earth are you doing with Howard Bannister's rocks," some of you will know what I mean--and laugh--and some of you will not (shame on you--fix that right away).

The Perkins family, like most families, has many legends and much lore. We love to tell and re-tell one another stories of past adventures, all of which have punchlines. When we don't have time for long reminiscences, the punchlines alone can bring a smile or a giggle.

These punchlines are our shibboleths, a code of shared meaning. They won't signify anything to you unless you know the stories behind them--which usually need to be acted out and not just told, due to crucial inflections and facial expressions. But they are precious to us.

What are you saying? What do you mean?

I gonna die!

Santa, you're scaring me!

Those birds are stuffing themselves!

Don't you dare remember that.


That's cool and disgusting!

Hey, you caiman!

A radish spirit!

You said, "Pie!"

Is this all for me?

No this. Want chockit!

You are ruining my day; this is the worst day of my life.


Bring it on, Grandpa.

You see that big blue thing over there?

Mom! Mom! A bad thing!

Bad news, Dad.

You can call me "Donkey Kong."


[With a Cockney accent:] "The name's Daniel."

So--this is a bar.

I want to be a garbage man when I grow up. My parents think that's funny.

Why fishies go in toilets?

See, now I'm laughing all over again, just writing them out.

What are some of your family's shibboleths?

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    Good Website, Continue the good job. Thanks a lot.

Reader Comments (5)

Armadillo: When something weird and/or unusual (like Havarti cheese, mitochondria, armadillos, or shibboleths) seems to keep coming up in random conversations. We chatted about shibboleths at writing group last night. The armadillo principle is one of our family shibboleths.

"We might need some tape": said by a 2-year-old whose injured fingernail had just come off
"But, mommy, he's not a stranger...he's NICE" That was me, explaining why I'd been chatting with the garbage man.

And about a zillion others. Good times! Nice to see you discuss this concept in positive, rather than exclusionary, terms.

September 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLee Ann

the night of the spilt pea soup

fishing for ducks

kidnapping baby geese

trapping rabbits (Erica had an obsession with wild animals as a kid)

the "small, caged pet" promise

back seat Napoleon


"hmmph, lookiter"

this shared short hand is one of things I love most about belonging to a family

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngelique

Which mission did you serve in, and what years? My husband was in the Quebec MONTREAL mission.

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKazzy

I was also in the Montreal mission 89-90, Kazzy.

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa

I love your sayings. So adorable. We don't have that many because I'm a stickler for grammar and pronunciation, but these are a few:
Dumpies... not dumplings.
Pemguin... my mother cannot procounce the "n" in penguin.

October 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVirtualsprite

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