Praises and Passwords

Jan_Wijnants_-_Parable_of_the_Good_Samaritan
The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

Have you ever used a Shibboleth? It’s a way of signing in whenever I need to access the OED online through my university’s portal. It is also, according to a quick Google search ‘among the world’s most widely deployed federated identity solutions, connecting users to applications both within and between organizations.’

Another definition comes up as: ‘a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.’

The OED, which, ironically, I needed to use Shibboleth to look up the self-same word has, amongst many definitions:

A word or sound which a person is unable to pronounce correctly; a word used as a test for detecting foreigners, or persons from another district, by their pronunciation.

A custom, habit, mode of dress, or the like, which distinguishes a particular class or set of persons.

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.

But, where did this word actually come from? The topmost entry in the OED explains:

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).

Basically, it was an ancient equivalent of what I call the ‘Chip Butty’ test. Being a proud Lancashire woman [albeit with a Yorkshire influence from my mum] I often hear people bragging that they’ve lived in Lancashire for x number of years and are, therefore, now true Lancashire-ites. I simply ask them to say ‘Chip Butty’. If it comes out more like ‘Chip Batty’ then they are NO WAY proper Lancashire! [If they don’t even know what a butty is, then they are ridiculed out of the pub, staff room or wherever by all and sundry.] If they do get the beautiful ‘u’ sound just right then, Hallelujah, they can count themselves as true natives of our fair county.

So, Hallelujah? I’m sure many people find themselves saying it, even if in a rather ironic or patronising way at times. It is actually Hebrew for ‘Praise the Lord’ and, therefore, something I love to say but in a hopefully more meaningful sense. Did you realise you were praising the Lord whenever you uttered that word? Something to think about maybe.

‘God Knows’ is another saying which people seem to use all the time – to which I usually answer ‘Yes, I know He does, but do you?’ Something else to think about?

Whilst I am on this topic, I’m sure we have all heard about the Samaritans, and I’m not ashamed to admit I have phoned them myself on a couple of occasions. They do amazing work for which they can’t be praised highly enough. However, did you realise that the original Good Samaritan was something of an oxymoron*? Interestingly, when I searched for an antonym for Samaritan I couldn’t find one at all. Nowadays it would perhaps be equivalent to Good Hooligan or Good Thug, although it had religious and racial connotations too. The Samaritans were people who vehemently differed from the Jews as to where to sacrifice to God, and the two nations were deeply mistrustful and antagonistic towards each other. For one to perform such an act of kindness in the parable [found in Luke 10:25–37] would have been almost unthinkable to Jesus’ audience. Yet nowadays it is a byword for kindness, unselfishness and helpfulness – quite a difference from its original derogatory meaning.

Despite the fact that most people nowadays would never open a Bible from one decade to the next, it’s quite surprising how much of our language is derived straight from there.

*Oxymoron:  A term which contradicts itself, for example ‘Deeply Superficial’
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