Words in different languages that resemble each other but mean different things are often called “false friends.” But what about words in English that may seem to be made up of words different from the ones they actually are made up of? Should we call them “fair-weather friends”?
Well, the term for misconstruals of words – reanalyses, as linguists call them – on the basis of plausible-sounding but inaccurate derivation is eggcorns, named after just such a misconstrual of acorn. And today’s word, bellwether, is subject to just such a misconstrual, as you can see, for instance, at news.nationalpost.com/2011/04/26/road-map-to-a-potential-ndp-breakthrough/ : bellweather.
We know what a bellwether is, right? Something like a canary in a coal mine – a thing that tells you which way the wind is blowing? Like a bell that rings to tell you the weather?
Such a train of reasoning may seem sensible but can leave people a bit sheepish. You see, if you have it as weather as in wind, you’ve blown it. Nor is it whether, as in to be or not to be. No, this is more to baa or not to baa. Wether is an old Anglo-Saxon word for a castrated ram. The leading one in a flock gets a bell on its neck so the shepherd knows which way the sheep are going (you may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but you may need a wether, man, to know which way the sheep go).
So bellwether meant first “lead sheep”, and from that more broadly a leader or person at the forefront; on the basis of that – and perhaps the idea of the weather bell – it has gotten the meaning “leading indicator of trends”. A bellwether is not quite someone who says “Lean on me when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on” (actually, that’s Bill Withers), but it’s also not a belle-weather friend. But when we the people (or perhaps sheeple) follow the bell (or follow where there be parallel lines), we are likely following a bellwether.
This word is uncommon for its llw combination, incidentally. The /lw/ sound is not normal in English (though ordinary enough in French, for instance), but it escapes here because it’s across syllable boundaries. Anyway, we tend to reduce the /l/ at syllable’s end so that it’s just like a /w/ but without the rounding, so all you need for /w/ is to round your lips – sort of like folding the two l’s into two v’s and gluing them together to make w. So the /l/ largely assimilates to the /w/ here.
And assimilation is just the sort of sheeplike behaviour that makes bellwethers so effective: follow the path of least resistance. I’m reminded of a joke. An old rancher has suffered a stroke and the doctor is testing his faculties. The doctor says, “Say you have a pen with 100 sheep in it and one gets out. How many sheep do you have?”
“None,” says the old rancher.
“Well… no,” says the doctor, “that’s not quite right. If you had 100, and you’ve lost one, how does that make none?”
“Look, young fella,” says the old farmer, “you may know brains but you don’t know sheep. If one of those damn things goes, they all go.”
And we just know which one gets out first, now, don’t we? Begins to ring a bell, doesn’t it?