Friday, November 5, 2010


Thanks to my last post,  I found a financial word of the day email and subscribed to it. Couldn't hurt, I thought. "Bellweather" was the very first one, which did not, shall we say, instill confidence. In one of my rare moments of non-ignorance, I actually know that the word is "bellwether", not "bellweather". I know this almost exclusively because I read the Connie Willis book of the same name. The book is not her best (I'd say that honor might go to To Say Nothing of the Dog or Doomsday Book, though friends report that her latest ones, Black Out and it's sequel, the just released All Clear, about WWII England are up to that high bar.) Bellwether, though, is really good in its exploration of its title concept.

The bellwether is, to my understanding, the sheep that leads the drift of the flock. As a metaphor,  it's maybe something like the trendsetter, or the avant garde. Willis's novel is partly about trying to figure out about how the bellwether is selected. I think I'll avoid spoilers around this one, as at the very least, there is a very interesting hypothesis proposed about this.

However, we still have the word to deal with. It's easy to understand how the misspelling, which implies an underlying mistake in meaning, came about. People probably think it has something to do with weather forecasting, with being able to  prognosticate. In fact, a bell wether is not such a dynamic creature. Here is a nice definition that I got from They Have a Word for It:

The word comes from the 13th century and first meant a wether (that is, a castrated male sheep) which wore a bell. Wether is Old English and dates from the 9th century. Bellwethers were noted for their docile nature and were used to lead flocks, especially to the slaughter. A curious feature of old sheep slaughter-houses was that the final run before the slaughter-pen had a side gate in the fence, known as a bellwether gate. Along comes the dopey bellwether down the sheep run, followed by trusting flock, then, at the last moment, wallop!, the shepherd slips the bellwether through the bellwether gate and the other sheep trot on, oblivious to their imminent doom. The bellwether was then introduced to a new flock and the sinister cycle was repeated.

Okay, not exactly a character to emulate. On the other hand, well, just look at the picture and decide for yourself whether (no, not wether) there might be some compensations...


  1. Bellwether doesn't sound like much of a financial term, but it does sound like a good crime fiction term. I might have to look into that book.

  2. It is used quite a lot in business, though, as it is in politics. I think anywhere you want to talk about a leading indicator of trends it will turn up. But it is funny how far the word has come from its original usage. And if you think about that image of the castrated ram leading others to their doom yet escaping time again itself, the banking industry is a bellwether industry if ever there was one.

    Yes, do take a look at Bellwether the novel if you have the time. It's short, and as I was looking through various descriptions of it, because of course I've forgotten much of what the discovered about bellwethers in the story, I realized how many clever elements it had that I'd already forgotten. I should probably reread it myself.

  3. I'm thinking maybe I should update the post to add this but meanwhile, a friend just posted this video clip of Connie Willis speaking with Laurie R. King. It's an hour long and I haven't had time to watch it yet, but it's suppose to be good.

  4. Thanks for the link, I'll try and check it out..probably in pieces though since being able to sit here for an hour straight doesn't really happen.

  5. I understand. And you may get to some of it at least before I do. But I do think it will be worth checking out.