In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros


Sheepish Behavior

Sheep are not special. There is nothing individualistic or aggressive about them. They are shy and retiring and lack leadership potential. En masse, you can't distinguish one from the other. When someone calls you sheepish, it is because you are "meek" and "docile."

The one exception is the occasional black sheep. Centuries ago, a black sheep in one's flock was deemed economically disastrous — it being impractical to dye black wool. Such bad luck was further thought to be the Devil's work, black being associated with evil. This helped to make today's black sheep a disgrace and an undesirable deviation from the norm.

Rejected and scorned, he became egregious, from the Latin egregius, from ex, out + grex, greg, flock. Egregious (c.1525-35) originally meant "outstanding," "distinguished," or "eminent." Being so designated meant that he had distinguished himself from the others, but not in a particularly good way. All he had managed to do was to segregate or set himself (se) apart from the rest.

Assuming the position of flock leader was out of the question. Since Anglo-Saxon times that responsibility has rested with a castrated ram known as the "wether." Herders hung a bell from his neck to keep track of his location, marking him as the undisputed leader, thus creating the bellwether (c.1400-1450).

Over the years, the bellwether has occupied a number of different roles. He has described a leader possessed of a loud mouth and little judgment, the head of a mob or conspiracy, and more recently, one in the forefront of a profession or industry.

Come election time, the bellwether emerges once more — courtesy of the Media. They dub certain states and districts "bellwethers," supposedly pointing the way to the ultimate outcome and to which viewers should pay special attention. You know, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." But will it play in Peoria?

They also characterize certain events as bellwether moments, such as when journalists so labeled the capture of Sadaam Hussein, the signing of the Iraqi constitution, and the parliamentary elections during the Iraq War — each allegedly portending victory and the creation of a stable country. How well these events heralded the future should serve as a reminder of the limitations of the bellwether. The original concept, after all, had to do with sheep, mindlessly following a leader with no balls.

For whom does the bellwether toll? Apparently, not for us.