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ETYMOLOGY: BELLWETHER

IT SEEMS immodest to quote one’s own comment, but I believe I may have originated “Satire is the bellwether of the body politic.” (Googled, this truism cites SimanaitisSays as its first three hits, and nothing else with the complete thought.)

I confess, though, to occasional uncertainty about spelling it bellwether/bellweather/bellwhether or other possibilities. Which leads to another in my series of Etymology for our Times.

Merriam-Webster defines “bellwether” as “one that takes the lead or initiative; an indicator of trends.” In the financial sense, M-W notes, it’s “a security or indicator that signals the market’s direction.” In fact, bellwether was the M-W Word of the Day on 06/10/2015, a year and a half before I came up with my satire comment.

Bellwether dates from 13th-century Middle English, a shepherd’s term for the leading sheep of a flock. This neutered ram was fitted with a bell for keeping track of his whereabouts. The word formed directly from Middle English’s belle, our bell, and wether, an even older word initially meaning a male sheep of any sort. Wether came from Old English and is akin to Old High German’s widar, or ram.

A bellwether. Image from Merriam-Webster.

In its definition for wether, M-W observes that bellwether doesn’t imply “any natural capacity for leadership on the part of this kind of animal.” The idea of initiative came later.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, chose to hyphenate its “bell-wether,” with the same primary definition, “the leading sheep of a flock on which a bell is hung.” It cites a 1549 Scottish reference, “The bel veddir for blythtnes bleyttit richt fast,” the complete ken of which evades me, though apparently it came promptly to that 16th-century Scot.

The OED’s second meaning is “a chief or leader. (Mostly contemptuous.)” Its 1577 citation from Holinshed’s Chronicles is exemplary: “Thomas being the ring-leader of one sect, and Scotus being the belweadder of the other.” (Both of them, possibly, earlier chroniclers of Ireland.)

A third definition is also given: “A clamorous person, one ready to give mouth. (Used opprobriously.)” In fact, the principal antagonist in the 2016 Disney flick Zootopia is Assistant Mayor Bellwether. When introduced, she’s a sweet sheep, meek, and fidgety. Later, her true character emerges as being fraudulent, devious, and power-hungry.

Assistant Mayor Bellwether, a female sheep sans bell, in Disney’s Zootopia, 2016. Image from zootopia.wiki.com.

Shakespeare also knew well the clamorous type ready to give mouth. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III, Scene 5, Falstaff complains to Master Brook (actually Ford in disguise) of having suffered when caught trying to woo Mistress Ford. One of the pangs: “To be detected with a iealious rotten Bell-weather.”

Falstaff Wooing Mistress Ford, watercolor, early 19th century, possibly by John Masey Wright.

I seem to be in good company unsure of the spelling of bellwether. Or of jealous. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

One comment on “ETYMOLOGY: BELLWETHER

  1. Burt Estep
    February 4, 2018

    Ya ken, as used in “the sting”. Love the term.

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