For whom the bellwether tolls
The financial industry is, as we all know, blighted by jargon, clichés and ill-advised metaphors. For the most part, we, at Copylab, will pounce upon these with gusto, wielding our red pens with ferocious purpose. But there are a few that we’re happy to let pass (now and then, at least). In our view, there’s some golden-syrup wordage in the midst of all fluffy waffle, and these deserve to be championed once in a while. Here’s the first we wish to highlight:
A bellwether is the leader of a flock of sheep. Yep, sheep. Back in the day, a castrated ram (a wether) would lead the ovine congregation around the pastures to the peal of the dangly thing hanging around his neck (a bell).
Probably utilised since not long after man first took to farming animals, the bellwether was a true boon in time and motion efficiencies for shepherds and sheepdogs alike. Back then, presumably, the sheep required the direction of a shiny-bell-wearing eunuch so that they could follow it around like … well, er … sheep. Of Germanic origin, the word first made a written appearance in mid-15th-century Middle English in a variety of forms including belle-weder, belwedyr and belweather.
In financial circles, these days, the use is figurative, employed to describe the leading stock in a sector. Caterpillar in US engineering, Microsoft for information technology or, on the UK high street, Marks and Spencer – these businesses often get tagged as the bellwethers for their particular industry. They are seen as chief among the pack and therefore can provide a good indication of the potential trends or the direction of the cycle in a particular market.
The term’s use is not confined to stocks, of course – bellwether is a useful word for other financial, economic or political settings. As the original meaning is now heavily warped it is, as Orwell might put it, a “dying metaphor”; that said, it’s still alive and kicking given its more modern-day role. However, it is not clear why the element of emasculation does not seem to be a factor when the pace-setting Ariesian is used as a descriptor in modern-day lingo.
To sum up, a good all-rounder. Great for investment writers. Bad for the ex-ram.
18 February 2015