Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

Vocabuteria: shibboleth

[An ongoing feature designed to improve your vocabulary and mine. Plus, I get to riff about something I love.]


This is biblical word that has, throughout my life, risen repeatedly to the surface of my awareness like a curious fish, only to disappear for another five or six years before rising again. Each time, I think, “That old word means something I need to learn because it won’t go away.” So I did, finally. It means, says Merriam-Webster, "a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning.” It’s from, says Wikipedia, "the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת‬), which literally means the part of a plant containing grain, such as the head of a stalk of wheat or rye.” It’s not related at all to “shillelagh,” which is an Irish stick or cudgel. But in my mind, “shibboleth” invokes “shillelagh.” Maybe no longer. Matt Taibbi, the brilliant Rolling Stone writer who has skillfully skewered Donald Trump and other deserving politicians for many years, recently used “shibboleth” to describe politicians in Washington who are empty of real meaning. Rolling Stone capitalized the word. Dictionaries don’t, at the least the ones I consulted.

Here’s the illustrative snippet from Matt Taibbi’s fun "Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Crusher of Sacred Cows” on (January 21, 2018):

I have no idea if Ocasio-Cortez will or will not end up being a great politician. But it’s abundantly clear that her mere presence is unmasking many, if not most, of the worst and most tired Shibboleths of the capital.

I can’t resist sliding in a couple of more paragraphs in the same piece. Taibbi, for me, is the current skewer-master, now that Tom Wolfe is dead.

Take the tax proposal offered by Ocasio-Cortez, which would ding the top bracket for 70 percent taxes on all income above $10 million.

The idea inspired howls of outrage, with wrongest-human-in-history Alan Greenspan peeking out of his crypt to call it a “terrible idea,” Wisconsin’s ex-somebody Walker saying a 5th grader would know it was “unfair,” and human anti-weathervane Harry Reid saying “you have to be careful” because voters don’t want “radical change quickly.”

Taibbi once called Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court (Republican) justice a “satanic quail-hunter” and won my heart forever.


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