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A word on bellwethers

By J. DeVoy

As part of its series of posts about BitTorrent litigation, Philly Law Blog recently discussed a “bellwether” trial that U.S. District Michael Baylson has set in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for numerous cases brought by Malibu Media LLC against several John Doe defendants.  In the literal sense, it is a bellwether case, and the trial – should it go forward – appears to be the first of its kind in the nation.

Bellwether, though, is a word that has lost all meaning.  It is thrown around casually in discussions of politics, economics, and now litigation.  However, the word has a dark and foreboding origin, which my antitrust professor Peter Carstensen once explained at length.

The term “wether” originated in 9th century Old English, and referred to a castrated male sheep.  By the 13th Century, the term “bellwether” had become synonymous with “wether,” and both referred to the poor, castrated male sheep.  However, adding the prefix “bell” to “bellwether” denoted a specific role this neutered sheep played for both shepherds and his fellow sheep.

In order to track flocks of sheep, a bell was attached to the wether – giving rise to the term bellwether.  The reason a bell was put on the wether, rather than other sheep, was because of his status as the flock eunuch.   Bellwethers were docile and easily controlled.  Because of the ease with which they could be controlled, they were used to lead the flock, and the sound of the bell around their necks kept the sheep’s owners apprised of their location.

Because of their emasculation, bellwethers were commonly used to lead their fellow sheep to slaughter.  However, the bellwether never was killed: His skills, such as they were, proved too valuable to lose.  Thus, early sheep slaughterhouses developed a “bellwether gate,” which was used to separate the useful-idiot bellwether sheep from the rest of the flock once he had led them into the slaughterhouse’s intake chute.  The saved bellwether was introduced to a new flock and the process was repeated.

Like the word’s origin, the term has been neutered with time, and now refers only to leading indicators of group activity.   Today, though, the word’s etymology remains apt.

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