bell·​weth·​er | \ ˈbel-ˈwe-t͟hər How to pronounce bellwether (audio) , -ˌwe- \

Definition of bellwether

: one that takes the lead or initiative : leader also : an indicator of trends

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We usually think of sheep more as followers than leaders, but in a flock one sheep must lead the way. Long ago, it was common practice for shepherds to hang a bell around the neck of one sheep in their flock, thereby designating it the lead sheep. This animal was called the bellwether, a word formed by a combination of the Middle English words belle (meaning "bell") and wether (a noun that refers to a male sheep that has been castrated). It eventually followed that bellwether would come to refer to someone who takes initiative or who actively establishes a trend that is taken up by others. This usage first appeared in English in the 13th century.

Examples of bellwether in a Sentence

She is a bellwether of fashion. High-tech bellwethers led the decline in the stock market. a county that is a bellwether in national elections
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Recent Examples on the Web The following Christmas would end up being the bellwether for where Diana and Charles' relationship was headed. Shannon Carlin,, "There’s A Lot Of Painful History Behind The Crown Finale’s Dreadful Christmas," 17 Nov. 2020 In the last year, the famously liberal city, sometimes seen as a bellwether in local government, has dealt with a series of dramas culminating in a profound shift in power that will likely reshape Santa Monica for years to come. Los Angeles Times, "Santa Monica politics upended by pandemic, George Floyd protests and economic woes," 20 Dec. 2020 New York City is a bellwether for the United States as social isolation and economic despair threatens lives and livelihoods amidst the already half a million unemployed in New York City and millions across the United States. NBC News, "Unmasking mental illness and addiction in a post-pandemic world," 18 Dec. 2020 Jobless-claims data have been viewed as a bellwether for economists and policy makers for a half-century. Eric Morath, WSJ, "U.S. Unemployment Claims Rise to Highest Level Since September," 10 Dec. 2020 With the virus showing no signs of abating and cases on the rise in the Bay Area, the endurance of longtime companies like Thomas Swan could be a bellwether for what the region looks like after the pandemic. Chase Difeliciantonio,, "Building Bay Area landmarks, Thomas Swan Sign Co. became a vulnerable one itself," 26 Nov. 2020 In this case, the UK was seen as a bellwether for Europe; if London let Huawei stick around, then officials in Paris, Berlin, and Brussels would likely do the same. Annabelle Timsit, Quartz, "Why Huawei isn’t giving up on the UK," 20 Nov. 2020 The only county that maintained its place as a bellwether is Clallam County, in Washington state. Claire Galofaro,, "The counties that predict presidential election winners didn’t this year. Just look at Terre Haute, Indiana.," 18 Nov. 2020 The iceberg is a colossal bellwether ringing around Antarctic and sub-Antarctic territories. Thomas Page, CNN, "Is an iceberg weighing hundreds of billions of tons on a penguin collision course?," 11 Dec. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'bellwether.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of bellwether

15th century, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for bellwether

Middle English bellewether, belleweder "castrated ram with a bell around his neck followed by the other sheep in a flock, leader," from belle bell entry 1 + wether, weder wether

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The first known use of bellwether was in the 15th century

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Last Updated

13 Jan 2021

Cite this Entry

“Bellwether.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.

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How to pronounce bellwether (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of bellwether

: someone or something that leads others or shows what will happen in the future

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