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Mispronouncing This SAT Word Could Get You Killed

Updated: May 19

A whimsical collage of the emperor Augustus holding a sword surrounded by cacti

Never thought you'd read that title, eh?

No, The College Board has not implemented some kind of Hunger Games-style exit questionnaire, but the story is equally shocking!

The book of Judges, in the Old Testament of the Bible, tells the story of a battle between the Ephraimites and the Gileadites.

Having won the battle, the Gileadites decided they didn’t want any survivors to make it home, so they set up checkpoints along the Jordan River. Anyone who wanted to pass was asked two questions:

  1. Are you an Ephraimite?

  2. How do you pronounce “shibboleth”?

You see, the Ephraimites didn’t have the “sh” in their dialect, so many of them had a difficult time pronouncing the word.

If they "could not frame to pronounce it right," according to the book of Judges, they were killed!

God wasn’t pleased after all this, but philologists (people who study languages) were. They brought the word “shibboleth” into English and re-invented its meaning around this story.

These days, a shibboleth is a distinguishing feature about a group of people, whether it’s their language, customs, etc. It might also describe their dialect or accent.

Why didn’t the Ephraimites just say the “sh,” you ask? Get my take, and learn more about this fascinating word, episode 37 of the Vocabbett podcast!

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