• bellwether •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A lead sheep, the one wearing a bell around its neck that stray lambs can hear from far away. 2. A trend-setter or leading indicator followed by others.
Notes: Speakers do not like words in their language that they do not recognize. French m'aider "help me," for example, was converted into the more recognizable "May Day" in English. As we now know, this type of conversion is known as folk etymology. Since wether is no longer widely recognized, many of us now are beginning to "correct" this word to bellweather. Well, the process hasn't had enough time, so we must still spell this word bellwether, without the A.
In Play: Since stockbrokers are always in the market for indicators that the market will rise or fall, it is not surprising that today's word turns up in the world of finance a lot: "A rise in profits is usually a bellwether for a future drop in stock prices." Then there is this golden nugget that keeps dropping out of our intellectual purse: "The vigor of a nation's educational system is a bellwether of that nation's economic prowess."
Word History: A wether is a gelded ram, though we seldom encounter one these days. A wether is generally given a bell to lead a herd of sheep, doubtless due to its superior ability to stay in front of the ewes. The root of this word shares its source with Latin vetus "old", found in such English borrowings as veteran, inveterate, and veterinarian, from Latin veterinarius "beast of burden". With the diminutive suffix [l] this root emerged in Latin vitellus "calf", which French reduced to veal then to today's veau. Bell has several relatives in English and other Germanic languages. In German we find bellen "to bark, bay" and in English, bellow—all noises or noise-makers. (Thanks to Mary Ann Tabor for suggesting today's Good Word, which we hope is a bellwether for more to come.)
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