28 February 2011

What the frak is a shibboleth ?

From the Oxford University Press blog:
Naturally the topic of conversation came to words, and I brought up one I had been using a lot lately: frak (the fictional version of “fuck” on Battlestar Galactica)... Matt said, oh that’s a “shibboleth.”

A whateth? According to the OED:
The Hebrew word used by Jephthah as a test-word by which to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the sh) from his own men the Gileadites (Judges xii. 4–6).
Matt told me that he had first heard the word on The West Wing. Martin Sheen sums it up nicely: a password. A more recent sense in the OED defines shibboleth as:
A catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded. The sect, in my case, is Battlestar enthusiasts.
I've not seen the show either, but at least now I know where "frak" comes from.  You learn something every day.

Update - a big hat tip to Z. Constantine, who found this awesome list of shibboleths - hundreds and hundreds of them!


  1. I thought frakking was what the oil companies are doing to the midwest in their neverending search for yet more oil to suck out of the ground.

  2. I'm sure you know that is "fracking" - but in environmental terms it may mean the same thing. :.)

  3. Yes, it was but a weak attempt at a pun.

  4. Now you know what the frak Battlestar fans are saying, but do pay a visit to Wikipedia's list of shibboleths for examples which turn a native tongue into an Achilles' heel.

    Favorite: "Woolloomooloo was used by Australian soldiers in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War to identify themselves when approaching a camp."

  5. Thank you, Z. Constantine. Info added to the post.

  6. Another variation of "frak" would be "smeg" from Red Dwarf - used as an expletive, in various forms. I've used it in conversation, and been able to pick out who else gets the reference, which is fun, considering the low numbers of teenagers that have also watched enough Red Dwarf to understand/react!

  7. I read in a World War II book -- it may have been EB Sledge's With the Old Breed -- that when selecting night-watch passcodes (most people know that militaries use oft-changing passcodes and responses at night, eg. 'thunder' and 'flash') in Japanese territories, the US Marines always selected words with the letter 'L.' The idea was that even if a Japanese soldier found out the passcode or response, he would be unable to pronounce it.

  8. In addition to frak and Red Dwarf's "smeg", there's also the alien words "skxawng" from Avatar, though if someone was unfamiliar with the pronounciation of the Na'vi language, it might be considered a kind of shibboleth. This would be kind of on the line with the way a shibboleth is handled in Inglorious Basterds, in way Lt. Hicox orders a round of drinks while posing as a German soldier, he uses his three middle fingers, rather than his thumb, his index and middle finger.

    There are quite a few interesting fictional shibboleths, including on the word "unionized" by Asimov.


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