February 18

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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:

Bellwether
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).

sheep_bell

Please submit your ‘baa-bell’ jokes to the usual address

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.

Chris Clarke

18 February 2015