My Favorite Shibboleth

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Early in the word-processing era, it was difficult or in some cases impossible to italicize words, and so one underlined them instead. When doing so, a colleague of mine always took special care not to underline the spaces between the words of a title. That is, instead of The Winds of War, he would write The Winds of War. He endured the chore of several additional keystrokes because he felt that a line under a space is meaningless. This was not unreasonable, but may have put too fine a point on it.

Putting too fine a point on it is the essence of shibboleths. Shibboleth is a Hebrew agriculture term. The modern use of it comes from a biblical story about a war between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, whose dialect did not include the /ʃ/, or sh, sound. The Gileadites won a battle and devised a strategy to determine whether or not each captive was from the enemy camp. In the words of the Book of Judges, “the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now ‘Shibboleth’: and he said ‘Sibboleth’: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.”

In language, a shibboleth is a usage that members of a certain group engage in not for meaning or elegance but in order to recognize each other (and exclude everybody else). Sometimes it reflects the state of the language decades or centuries before; other times it doesn’t have even that justification. My first boss, Myron (Mike) Kolatch, the erstwhile editor of The New Leader magazine, was all about the shibboleths. In addition to the usual ones (don’t use which for restrictive clauses, quantities require more than and not over, don’t use anxious to mean eager or since to mean because or aggravate to mean anything except the worsening of a condition), he had a few rules that I’ve never encountered since. One was that just was permissible just only in reference to time, as in “We had just arrived.” And only could be used only in situations of uniqueness, hence, “I am only merely trying to make the magazine conform to proper English.” I cannot hear the word merely without thinking of Mike.

A recent Quartz article that went mildly viral, “20 Misused Words That Make Smart People Look Silly,” featured a number of pairs of words that are commonly or at least occasionally actually muffed: accept/except, infer/imply, lie/lay. But it also went all in on some hoary shibboleths that I don’t believe even Mike Kolatch subscribed to. For example,

“Bring” and “take” both describe transporting something or someone from one place to another, but the correct usage depends on the speaker’s point of view. Somebody brings something to you, but you take it to somewhere else: “Bring me the mail, then take your shoes to your room.”

Give me a break. No one would ever say “Take me the mail,” and there is absolutely nothing wrong with “Bring your shoes to the room.” You just (sorry, Mike) have to imagine the action from the point of view of the room. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (M-WDEU) says“A native speaker of English will hardly ever misuse bring or take; the problem exists in the minds of the usage  commentators who have formulated incomplete rules for the use of bring.

The article also cautions, Nauseous means causing nausea; nauseated means experiencing nausea.” This is a case of following usage that was in force circa 1916, but not for very long after that.  Even in its 1994 edition, M-WDEU could observe, “Any handbook that tells you nauseous cannot mean ‘nauseated’ is out of touch. In current use it seldom means anything else.”

All this shouldn’t be taken to mean I have no Gileadite tendencies. I would wager that all of us in this language-pundit game have our idiosyncratic prejudices, even Geoffrey Pullum. We cannot justify them rationally, but we carry them with us like talismans, warding off who knows what.

As it happens, the Quartz article included my own personal favorite shibboleth: “Farther refers to physical distance, while further describes the degree or extent of an action or situation. ‘I can’t run any farther,’ but ‘I have nothing further to say.’” True to form, M-WDEU demurs, pointing out that further and farther are historically the same word, and that both have been used by the best writers in both contexts for centuries. (However, the most recent citation for farther-meaning-additional is Edith Wharton, 1920: “He became aware that Mr. Jackson was clearing his throat preparatory to farther revelations.”)

I don’t care. I am committed to reserving farther for distance, both literal and metaphorical (“Trump has gone farther than previous candidates in making outrageous statements.”). When I get back a manuscript on which an editor has changed one of my farthers to a further, I take a palpable pleasure in restoring the original — much, I imagine, as my friend did in removing the underlines from spaces between the words of a title.

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