Political jargon 1: “Bellwether”

The bellwether sheep, who leads the flock. Photo from Goodreads.

The bellwether sheep, who leads the flock. Photo from Goodreads.

“Ohio, Long a Bellwether, Is Fading on the Electoral Map” So read a headline in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. What exactly does bellwether mean, and where does the word come from? A bellwether state is one that has historically always (or often) voted for the winning candidate, perhaps because demographically it tends to represent a microcosm of the country. The state of Missouri, for example, voted for the winner in all U.S. presidential elections but one from 1904 to 2004, with the exception being 1956.

The word bellwether is derived from the Middle English bellewether, and it refers to the shepherd’s practice of placing a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (a wether*) who leads a flock of sheep. Shepherds could listen for the bell of the wether and locate his entire flock before it came into sight. So the modern meaning of bellwether is something that leads or indicates a trend.

* Old English, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch weer and German Widder.

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