I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word “shibboleth”.
I could assume most people reading this will understand the term but, to make sure, let’s start by explaining it. With its roots in a Hebrew term and a particular Bible verse, a shibboleth is a term that distinguishes one group of people from another by its use.
It’s a fascinating subject. For example, your position on either side of the Northern Irish divide might be identified by calling the province’s second-largest city Derry or Londonderry. In war, shibboleths are often used as passwords: the English-speaking Allies during the Second World War often used words such as “thunder” in this way, because they believed many Germans would have difficulty with the “th” sound.
I have a couple of favourites of my own. In the geek community, we joke that the Marvel superhero Squirrel Girl has a name that’s only funny west of the Atlantic, where it rhymes. And I use a shibboleth in my Twitter profile, to identify me as a true Dundonian who is also fat: “Eh e’ i’ a’.” If you don’t understand, you can get tae Fife.
Speaking of Fife, I thought of shibboleths last week when I read about LNER having to re-record train announcements because they pronounced Kirkcaldy to rhyme with “baldy”. The same recordings referred to the Highland town of “King-goosey”, so let’s be happy they didn’t have a service to Kirkcudbright by way of Milngavie. And don’t even get me started on the difference between Fowlis and Fowlis Wester.
Obviously, LNER’s mistake identified it as “other”, and therefore to be derided. While it’s unwelcome and perhaps insulting to Scots, even if we’re accustomed to being considered unimportant, it is at least an honest mistake and it’s important to remind ourselves to be inclusive.
The most common shibboleths are depressing and ubiquitous. I’m thinking of words like “remoaner”, or “yoon”, or “cybernat”. As the post-EU era sets in, however upset we may be, let’s consider what unites us, not what divides us, and use positive language wherever we can.
After all, there’ll be another referendum along soon, with more reasons to argue. And, whatever happens, we’ll still have to find ways to understand each other.