A Shibboleth of Squirrels – How England Avoided Being Invaded By Defending Itself With Trick Words

Shibboleth (noun) – A custom, principle or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people. Origin : 17th Century, from the Hebrew Sibolet ‘ear of corn’, used as a test of nationality by its difficult pronunciation (Judges ch12 v6)


During World War Two, the populace of Great Britain was wary of spies. German spies who were trained to act and sound exactly like the natives and who would wreak havoc with Britain’s already battered economy by flooding it with millions of pounds worth of fake fivers. They needn’t have worried though. There’s a very good reason why this plan would not have worked. That reason can be summed up in one word. Squirrel.

You see, no matter how much intensive training you give a German, no matter how educated he becomes in the English Language, he won’t be able to pronounce the word “squirrel” correctly. The fake Fiver plan was not a figment of the British imagination. The Germans really did consider it and even printed the fivers. But they realized that the only spies who could execute the plan would have to be native British sympathizers and there just weren’t enough of them.

The squirrel shibboleth wasn’t the only trick word standing in the way of stealthy German invasion. Not by a long chalk. The English language is peppered with them. Place names are a good example. There’s the Belvoir Valley (pronounced Beaver Valley). There Towcester (pronounced Toaster) and of course there’s the infamous Worcestershire ( pronounced Wooster-sher). This is one that confuses many American characters in sitcoms as they struggle to pronounce “Worcestershire Sauce”. It’s simpler than it seems though. No Englishman says “Wooster-sher sauce”. We all just call it “Wooster sauce”. A shibboleth within a shibboleth there.

There are also surnames whose spelling and pronunciation bear little resemblance. There’s Cholmondley (pronounced Chumley). There’s Mainwaring (pronounced Mannering) and there’s Luxury-Yacht (pronounced Throat-Wobbler Mangrove). Sorry, that was a Monty Python reference. I won’t do that again. Promise.

There are also internal shibboleths within the British Isles. Glaswegians, for instance, can’t say “Burglar Alarm”. And Scottish people have a particular way of saying “Curly Wurly”. In fact, here’s a clip of Dr Who sexpot assistant Amy Pond – aka actress Karen Gillan- saying those very words.

Personally, I prefer the Scottish way of pronouncing “Curly Wurly”. At least I do when it’s Karen Gillan doing the pronouncing.

Scotland has its own shibboleths too, though. Take the word “Menzies”. The “z” in this word is actually the extinct Scottish letter “zog”. By dint of this and other linguistic peculiarities, “Menzies” is actually pronounced “Mingus”, as in late Jazz legend Charlie Mingus.

In Britain we have a politician called Menzies. Officially he is called Sir Walter Menzies Campbell MP, but everyone just shortens the correct pronunciation of his middle name and he is therefore known as Ming. That’s right, we have a politician in Britain who is called Ming. As in Ming the Merciless. Though in accordance to the laws of irony, he’s actually a Liberal Democrat.

The English Language does not stop there at helping identify covert agents of a foreign power. Perhaps the most bamboozling of them is the different ways of pronouncing “-ough”. There are ten by the way, if we’re going to get technical.

Examples of the ten ways “-ough-“ can be pronounced are: Cough (rhymes with “off”), Enough (rhymes with “stuff”), Through (rhymes with “do”), Dough (rhymes with “no”), Thought (rhymes with “awe”), Plough (rhymes with “cow”) and Thorough (which is pronounced “thurah”, provided you’re not American).

There’s also Hiccough (a variant spelling of hiccup, but pronounced the same), Hough (a variant spelling of “hock”, as in ham-hock) and Lough ( a variant spelling of “Loch” as in Loch Ness, which is pronounced as in “Och Aye The Noo”.) N.B. Scottish people never, ever say “Och Aye The Noo.” They say “Och Aye” and they say “The Noo”, but never the two together.

Quite a bewildering array, I’m sure you’ll agree. Even if you are a native English speaker, you probably found that list pretty bewildering. That’s if you made it through the list without nodding off, of course. The point of that list, of course, is that there are no rules as to how these words are pronounced. You just have to know. This is what makes them so useful as regards rooting out spies.

English does have rules of course, but they’re a bit rubbish. The least effective of all is “ i before e, except after c”, which as far as I’ve been able to work out only seems to work for the word “ceiling”. Part of the reason for this is that the little rhyme that spells out the rule is incomplete. The rule in its entirety is actually “i before e, except after c, when the sound you are making is ‘ee’.”

The rule works more often when you apply the whole thing, but it still doesn’t work all the time which means that it’s not really a rule. Weird, eh?

Useful as these linguistic quirks have been in the past in repelling agencies of foreign powers, they are no longer relevant, or even needed. You could argue that they never have been needed, what with Britishness itself only really being an illusion created by the blending together of outside influences in the first place.

The internet means that all sorts of cultural markers are being stamped on Britain. If you need the Police, Ambulance or Fire Brigade in Britain, you dial 999. But if you dial 911, you still get through. This isn’t for the benefit of American tourists either. The truth is that we watch so many American shows here that 911 is the number people under 25 are most familiar with.

There are those who decry this sort of cultural invasion, but I say bring it on. If we all start getting the same references via the television and the internet, then maybe we’ll start to understand each other a little better. Maybe we’ll eventually become one great big homogenous global nation, forget what war was for and turn our attention to outer space and explore it together. Or more likely find some Klingons or something to pick a fight with.

© Copyright Michael Grimes 2014


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About thedailygrime

At that awkward age - too young to be a grumpy old man, but just acerbic and downtrodden enough to have an opinion. Read it here.

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