Deciphering Meaning

Carol A. Hand

This morning, I reluctantly emerged from a hypnagogic state. I wanted to remember my strange dream. It was laden with meaning that I knew would escape me as soon as I awoke fully. Yet the early morning sun streaming through the eastern window and singing parakeets called. It was time to get up. Still, I lingered a few moments and then scribbled what I could remember in the margins of the cryptogram puzzle book by my bedside – the only paper available.

I saw a word floating in the air of my dream – shibboleth. It seemed important, but it’s not a word I ever remember using. I’m sure I’ve read it and looked it up more than once. I’ve probably written it many times before in the margins of some of the obscure texts I was trying to decipher. I have a habit of sitting with my unabridged dictionary on my lap at such times, scribbling words and definitions in the margins of my texts. Sometimes, it’s easier for me to keep writing definitions than it is to find the ones I’ve already written many times.

Does this word offer a clue to help me continue working out a tricky transition in the book about Ojibwe child welfare I’m working on?

Shibboleth – (noun shib·bo·leth \ˈshi-bə-ləth also -ˌleth\) – an old idea, opinion, or saying that is commonly believed and repeated but that may be seen as old-fashioned or untrue; a word of a way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group. (


A shibboleth, in its original signification and in a meaning it still bears today, is a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups. Within the mindset of the ingroup, a connotation or value judgment of correct/incorrect or superior/inferior can be ascribed to the two variants.

In contemporary usage the word has acquired an extended meaning which is often cited first (and sometimes even exclusively) in shorter dictionaries, namely, an old belief or saying which is cited repetitively or unreflectively but which is, or may be, fallacious or untrue… (Wikipedia)

What does the word shibboleth imply about the liminal space between the Ojibwe and Euro-American settler cultures I studied years ago and continue to ponder today? Certainly the past continues to influence the present.

“I understand what you want . . . from the few words I have heard you speak,” said Chief Flat Mouth of the Pillager Band of Ojibwe to a group of U.S. government officials in 1855. “You want land.” (National Endowment for the Humanities)

Ojibwe US 1855 meeting11_12_statements6

Photo: President Andrew Johnson and American Indian delegates – 1867. (NEH)

I honestly don’t know what to make of a dream where the word shimmered in the air just as I awoke. The notes I scribbled in the margins of my cryptogram puzzle book don’t seem to offer much.

All people create separate worlds in the past where they can revisit. [I think this is what I was doing in my dream.] Some get caught there, and others are stuck halfway in-between. The worlds we create can tell us a lot about who we are and the things that matter most to us.

I couldn’t even remember how to spell shibboleth when I awoke, so I gave it my best guess and Google did the rest. Honestly, this is something I will need to think about more. In the meantime, the final cryptogram puzzle I solved before going to sleep last night reminds me of one of the pressing tasks I need to do today.


I welcome any thoughts about the meaning of shibboleth, or solutions for the cryptogram puzzle. (I do remember one of my virtual friends hates word puzzles. I hope he doesn’t feel obligated to comment, although I do welcome his thoughts about the meaning of shibboleth. 🙂 )


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18 thoughts on “Deciphering Meaning

  1. I don’t have any specific thoughts about shibboleth, but here’s a link to a Google search on a combination of words that might help the shimmering crystallize in some bits of clarity for you. 🙂…525539.528774.0.531633.….0…1c.1.64.serp..1.2.301.f2cKOHfCd6s

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Intriguing links, Carl. Thank you so much for taking the time to google these combinations and share this suggestion. I have read some of the works listed, others I may need to access through inter-library loan through my public library since I no longer have university access. But the mystery of meaning seems to deepen with each new comment.


  2. I’m no good at dream decyphering, but here’s an additional piece of information on Shibboleth that you might find useful, particularly if you subscribe to Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralist version of anthropology. Shibboleth is Hebrew for “ear of grain.” It came into English through the King James translation of the Hebrew Bible verses Judges 12:5-6. In the story the Gileadites were trying to discover who were Ephraimites falsely pretending to be Gileadites. The Gileadites on encountering a stranger asked him to pronounce Sibboleth, a word the Ephraimites (we are told) have difficulty pronouncing. The King James translators imported the word directly into the translation (I assume they knew the meaning). So the word came to mean a “test” or “watchword.” Around the mid-1800s it came to also mean an “outmoded slogan still adhered to” (although I find the evolution of the meaning somewhat hard to follow). In any event, I’m sure that failure to pass the test in Judges meant swift death for the tongue-tied Ephraimite. That was certainly the case when the Italians used a similar test word cicera, which means “chick peas” to determine if someone were French (who like the Ephraimites were exposed by mispronunciation) during the massacre called the Sicilian Vespers in 1282.

    So there are a couple of other things to ponder. Does “ear of grain” have any meaning? Do the fact that the word is a cross-cultural test, meaning death or destruction for one failing it, have significance? Or perhaps it signifies a word in a foreign language that we use to mean something entirely different than its meaning in that language.

    And of course if all else fails, you can try Freudian dream analysis. But probably I would only consult that as a last resort and only if you really want to find out.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fascinating etymology and history, DK. There’s no easy answer, here, but certainly an opportunity to continue learning and searching for possibilities. (I’m not inclined to rely on Freud for answers, though 🙂 ).


  3. This sounds to me like an exhortation to you to continue. Not that I am a guru;-)

    I have had dreams that have accurately predicted what was going to happen in my life in a very short period of time; I mean they were specific to the circumstances I was facing at the time. In fact, My mother and her mother had lucid dreams on a regular basis. My maternal grandmother quite often knew when a family member had died, and at the very moment it had happened.

    I had one of these dreams when I was still married. And I shared it with my wife, but because the message was so difficult to deal with, for her as well as me, she rejected the dream as any kind of accurate message. And, of course, I understood why. A few months later, the message I had received from this dream came to pass.

    This was a quarter century ago, and I still can see this dream in my mind’s eye.

    I’m two dum two hep with the pussle! Sorry;-)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Sojourner. They’re very interesting, so I guess I should follow your advice and continue writing 🙂

      It’s okay – I already know what it says, I’m just tying to carve out time to follow through on the responsibility it describes. And it’s not a matter of smart – I’m just fascinated by looking for underlying patterns. I’m sure you do this in music.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good! Yes! Keep writing!

        I’m glad I could be of assistance;-)

        “I’m just fascinated by looking for underlying patterns. I’m sure you do this in music”

        Absolutely. But these world puzzles are way over my head, and I’m not sure why.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I can’t understand why the patterns are easy for me to see most of the time – kind of like geometry for me after I threw my book across the room in frustration. Suddenly I could solve most of the problems without ever understanding how. But I can’t even write a simple melody …

          Liked by 1 person

        2. You just have the “knack”!

          “But I can’t even write a simple melody …”

          I can’t either, I’m not commercially minded. All my melodies, rhythms, and harmonies as well, make most people turn their heads like a dog hearing a high pitched sound;-) And then others get it. Go figure.

          Nor am I capable of writing as you can, and do!

          This is why I spent most of life in a very low tax bracket, driving used cars;-)

          I suffered for my art;-)

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow! I, too, have heard and seen the word for many years without knowing what it meant. But I think it speaks directly to your work. In its original meaning, it’s a marker of cultural identity. But then it begins to stigmatize those markers as outdated (primitive!) and false. Settler cultural markers don’t get called shibboleths.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Fascinating insights, Diane. I was just thinking about the role of cultural/political hegemony in determining how “customs,” institutions, structures, expressions, etc. are labeled. Who defines what is “outdated”? This line of thinking also made me rethink the crucial role of environment in the cultures people develop. What happens over the course of generations to the cultures of people who were able to roam freely in their annual seasonal rounds after they’re confined to fenced in enclosures? Do customs become obsolete, or do they help preserve crucial cultural elements from past eras? I still have more questions than answers, but at least this dialogue is helping me move forward.


  5. Intriguing, Carol! Our subconscious mind is very much like our computer memory. Learn to access it and we’re way ahead in moving forward with our projects in progress.

    Perhaps, the word “shibboleth” is just the mind’s way of categorizing what you are currently attempting to achieve in your work.

    Don’t be overly anxious in deciphering its meaning. It will come to you when you least expect.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. First, your cryptogram: A Kin Hubbard quote about having to do something for someone we know ( L TK VKH YPVH HK BLNF HDF BPRF PYPW (hopefully I didn’t commit to many typos ; – ) ) Not that I know anything about Hubbard apart from what I found on Wikipedia.

    Second, as pertains to the shibboleth of your dream: I’ll go with “a custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to,” or in other words, a sign that is itself a sort of “cryptogram,” as is also a dream that you feel might be significant but remains elusive enough to remain cryptic and in need of being decoded. And you also mentioned completing a cryptogram before going to bed last night.

    So the ‘cryptogram’ theme, as prevalent as it is, seems to be framing whatever it is you are most preoccupied with today, perhaps that hardest of things one has to do for someone one knows. Maybe you feel that you will have to be subtle about how you pull that off, neither to compromise that someone nor yourself, at least not too much.

    Just an opinion stated perhaps somewhat cryptically in keeping with the day’s theme,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A good guess on the quote, Norman. But I must admit the connections between the cryptogram and dream are not quite as direct. The cryptogram booklet was merely the only paper readily available to write on. When I typed out my notes about the dream, I read the solved puzzle and remembered that I had promised to write a reference letter for a former student by tomorrow. (A promise I still have to honor even if it means a late night…)

      I agree that shibboleth could mean an outdated custom or language. This could fit in the context of hegemony – Whose cultural view or relative position of power defines something as outdated? I can think of a number of possibilities from the interviews I’ve covered so far.

      But I understand from a friend’s email today that the word also has an interesting historical context in terms of an ongoing conquest between two warring peoples (tribes or nations) that claimed a particular homeland. The importance of homeland – environment- is something I have been thinking about after reading your recent post about racism and culture. I’m still trying to clarify my thoughts on this, though…

      As always, I appreciate your thought-provoking dialogue. Thank you 🙂


      1. I was going to post a reply about the manner in which I think I follow Marx in conceiving the connection between culture and the environment, between the realm of ideas and the ‘material conditions’ of life, in how the latter conditions the former.

        But it would have been too long to post as a reply here (already it is too long). So instead, I’ll commit myself to a post at my blog. Hopefully I’ll have it up some time this week if I don’t end up tying myself up into too many knots over it, or don’t get too distracted with other things, an ever present hazard.

        The gist of it is (will be?), to put it as simply as I can, that typically “in the beginning [is] the deed” (Goethe) and thereafter the thought — which is the rationalization or justification for the deed — emerges; or in other words, ‘cultural intent’ tends to follow upon established practice rather than informing it in the first place even though that ‘intent’ becomes the scaffolding that sustains the practice in tradition, whatever the practice may be, sociologically speaking.

        I have my assignment, then. Hopefully I’ll make the deadline. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. BTW: something occurs to me just now. I’ve written a piece I titled “A Synopsis of Marx’s Concept of “Value” and how “Abstract Labour” Determines the Magnitude of all “Exchange-Values” in a Non-arbitrary Way – at least according to Norm,” and in which one may find a hint of what I’m suggesting in terms of how practice tends to precede and condition ideology, in the way that I think Marx understands that relationship. You can find it here:

          Of course, you don’t have to trouble yourself, but as a kind of primer to what I have in mind, it can sort of serve that purpose. The piece pertains more to what Marxists call the ‘transformation problem,’ but it nevertheless also, if incidentally, illustrates the point at hand.


          Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve re-read my reply a couple of times and it seems to say, kind of, what I want it to say. You can find under the title: “A thought on Culture as an Integral Part of the Conditions of Existence.”

        Chance are that if I re-read a month from now, it will then mean something slightly different to me. Funny how that is.

        Liked by 1 person

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