POETRY FRIDAY: Shibboleth [Michael Donaghy]

ImageWhen I stumbled across this poem, it took me back to a moment about four years ago when I was sitting in a lecture on Morphology. Our lecturer was (still is!) a fantastically interesting man named Heinz Giegerich – no link this time, but feel free to look him up yourself. He’s a German linguist with a lovely twang to his accent when he speaks English. One day he happened to use the word ‘shibboleth’, and was met with a sea of blank faces – kinda shameful considering that as a Linguistics undergrad you’re supposed to be fairly well clued-up about words (and especially words about words) . Before he told us what it meant he said it slowly a couple more times, paused, then said it some more, taking care to really enunciate each sound in the sibilant shibboleth – a display of incredulity mixed with the simple satisfaction that some words give when formed in the mouth. I wouldn’t be surprised if reading this has prompted you to mutter ‘shibboleth’ a few times to yourself, too.

In case you’re as bewildered as we were, a shibboleth is the linguistic poker tell – a word or pronunciation that betrays the speaker in some way to his interlocutor(s). And here is a lovely poem about such things:



One didn’t know the name of Tarzan’s monkey
Another couldn’t strip the cellophane
From a GI’s packet of cigarettes.
By such minutiae were the infiltrators detected
By the second week of battle
We’d become obsessed with trivia.
At a sentry point, at midnight, in the rain,
An ignorance of baseball could be lethal.


The morning of the first snowfall, I was shaving,
Staring into a mirror nailed to a tree,
Intoning the Christian names of the Andrews Sisters.
‘Maxine, Laverne, Patty.’


Happy Poetry Friday everyone, have an awesome weekend.

Until next time! x

More Micheal Donaghy: http://www.poemhunter.com/michael-donaghy/

Artwork credit: ‘War in Heaven (The Green Fall of the Rebel Angels) by Kazuya Akimoto


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