On a recent trip to Berkeley, Calif., we drove past this sign for a restaurant and did a double-take. As Philadelphians, we take our cheesesteaks seriously. A cheesesteak isn’t microwaved or toasted, it doesn’t involve Swiss cheese or frozen processed meat slabs, and it is one word: cheesesteak.
By breaking the word cheesesteak into two words, this eatery is immediately suspect to Philadelphians. As it happens, the shop turns out to have real Philly origins and it gets the recipe right, from the provolone cheese to the Amoroso’s rolls.
But the sign mistake illustrates something that often happens when people try to portray their business as something it is not. The little things give them away. Cultural shibboleths — the jargon, knowledge and behaviors that only authentic members of the culture know — abound in every geographic area, society and industry. The word shibboleth comes from a biblical story in which a cultural group could identify enemies by asking them to say the word “shibboleth.” It worked because the enemy culture had no “sh” sound in their language and therefore couldn’t say it right.
Here are some other Philadelphia shibboleths:
- When using public transportation in Philly, you take SEPTA — not the SEPTA.
- The Schuylkill River is pronounced SKOOkle. It’s fun to watch newbies try to say it on sight.
- You don’t head to New Jersey to “go to the beach.” You go “down the shore.”
To guard against shibboleth blunders:
- If you have to write about an area, society or industry that is unfamiliar to you, DO get someone who is familiar with it to read your text. You don’t know what you don’t know.
- If you are writing for a societal group to which you do not belong — for example, adults writing for teens — DON’T try to mimic their slang. You will get it wrong. Talk to them, not like them.
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