How do you spell “shibboleth”?

No, it’s ok, I don’t need help with that. I’m pretty good at spelling, which means that whenever one of those online spelling quizzes comes up, I can pat myself on the back for being oh so very knowledgeable. Yay me. I’m also pretty good at grammar and suchlike, and when I break the Sacred Rules of Punctuation I do it knowingly. I even know the bogus rules which some people think are Very Important Rules of Grammar and that every time we break them, a little grammar fairy dies or something. You know the ones I mean? Like splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, daring to use “less” for a count noun…

Oops, did that hurt? Did I just mention one of your favourite shibboleths?

Because I would like to suggest that shibboleth is exactly the term for this sort of thing. When we pedants post yet another diatribe on social media about how standards are slipping and look, just look at the ignoramuses who can’t even tell the difference between “less” and “fewer” – it’s just one more example of the very common human pastime of Let’s Find Reasons to Look Down on Others, because that will make us feel so much better about ourselves.

When people tweet their horror about some new “made-up” word (as if the words we’ve been using weren’t originally made up by someone?) or when we shudder about textspk or when we roll our eyes in unison about how the youth today are breaking the rules (isn’t that what young people have always done? isn’t it great that they’re being imaginative and inventive?) or gloat at the way some people are so stoopid they mispronounce this obscure word that nobody really ever uses except when they’re being pretentious… when we loudly point out other people’s mistakes – sometimes real mistakes and sometimes just things that we think are wrong but it turns out we’re wrong about that, which adds an extra fun layer to this whole thing – when we loudly point out other people’s mistakes, I would like to suggest to you that we are not doing this because we care so much about the English language. No, it’s because we love feeling “brainier than thou”.

We all have it in us – this tendency to look down on other people so that we can feel better about ourselves. And we’re all just as ridiculous as Owl in the Winnie the Pooh stories, who passed himself off as super knowledgeable when he couldn’t even spell his own name right. You may be a lot better at spelling than Owl was, but nobody is perfect, and we all know that as soon as we start composing a post decrying someone else’s mistake, we are bound to make some typo or other. Because we’re human.

Also: even if you did get it right all the time – even if your use of English was absolutely impeccable – how exactly does that make you a better person?

Oh, you say, it means I’m intelligent and well educated – how nice. I repeat: how exactly does that make you a better person?

It is entirely possible to be intelligent and well educated, and also an insufferable, obnoxious, uncaring human being. It is also entirely possible to be kind, caring, loving, and fun without having a high IQ and without even knowing how to read and write. One of the loveliest people I’ve ever known was a woman with Downs. If I had to be stranded with someone on a desert island and had to choose between her and some uncaring super smart person with a PhD, I know which one I’d go for.

I am intelligent – I know that because I’ve done the tests – but my IQ is nothing for me to boast about, it’s just part of the package deal I was born with, not something I earned. Just as it would be silly to boast about physical beauty, or good eyesight, or having a talent for painting. We’re born with a set of gifts. What we do with them – now that’s a bit more up to us. You can pat yourself on the back for working hard at something, for using your gifts well – just remember where they came from, and don’t look down on people who were dealt a different set of cards.

And really, the gift of a high intellect – can we please stop talking as though it’s a Super Important one? Because we all know that kindness matters a lot lot more.


Questions? Thoughts? Talk to me - I don't bite :)

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