Green’s Dictionary of Slang

bell-wether n.

[SE bell-wether, the leading sheep of a flock, on whose neck a bell is hung]

1. the leader of a mob.

[UK]Lydgate Bochas 224a: I was cleped in my countrey The belweather [F&H].
[UK]Holinshed Chronicles (Ireland) II 40/2: Thomas being the ringleader of the one sect, and Scotus the belweadder of the other.
[UK]Greene Frier Bacon and Frier Bungay D3: I am [...] the Belwether of this company, these are my lords, and I the prince of Wales.
[UK]T. Brown Saints in Uproar in Works (1760) I 73: Who are the principal bell-weathers of this mutiny?
[UK]B.E. Dict. Canting Crew n.p.: belweather chief or Leader of the Flock. Master of misrule, also a clamorous noisy Man.
[UK]Grose Classical Dict. of the Vulgar Tongue n.p.: bell wether the chief or leader of a mob. Idea taken from a flock of sheep, where the wether has a bell about his neck.
[UK]Lex. Balatronicum.
Southey Wat Tyler II i: Come, you old stirrer-up of insurrection, You bell-wether of the mob.
[US]J.R. Lowell Biglow Papers (1880) 5: ’Tain’t afollerin’ your bell-wethers will excuse ye in His sight.
[UK]Belfast Protestant Jrnl 27 July 1/2: Before [...] the clergy of the Metropolis [...] follow the bell-wether of St Martin’s Hall into the pit.
Shefield Eve. Teleg. 16 Nov. 2/2: The lackadaisical young ruffian [...] has also played bell-wether to some of his evilly disposed countrymen.
[UK]Western Times 7 Feb. 11/3: A number of Women Suffragists behaved in a disordley manner [...] Miss Bourchier protested, whereupon Mr Plowden remarked, ‘You appear to be the bell-weather of the flock’.

2. a very noisy man.

[UK]Towneley Mysteries ‘Prima Pastorum’ (3) line 112: Go now, bell-weder!
[UK]Shakespeare Merry Wives of Windsor III v: I suffered [...] an intolerable fright, to be detected with a jealous rotten bell-wether.
[UK]Return from Parnassus Pt II I ii: What, a bel-wether in Paules Church-yard? So cald because it keeps a bleating.
[UK]J. Taylor Laugh and Be Fat 32: Ram-headed Bel-weathers shall ring thy fame.
[UK]Shelton Quixote IV xiii 109: She made me weep, that am no bell-weather [F&H].
[UK]Pope Mother Gin 15: Herds of city Saints elected, As Bell-weathers and Bulls, for noise respected [...] who from their tubs Make bulls in praise of Schism and Calves-head clubs.
[UK]Bridges Homer Travestie (1764) II 47: The Greek and Trojan hosts together / Couldn’t make such noise as this bell-wether / Roaring.
[US]G.W. Harris Sut Lovingood’s Yarns 267: The blusterin ole bell wether jis’ wilted down’ an’ sot in tu strippin slow, an’ a-beggin, an’ a-promisin, an’ a-makin money offers.
[Ire]Sthn Reporter & Cork Courier 17 June 2/5: A great sacrilegious ‘bell-wether’ was welcomed by the crowd as a ‘corker’.

In derivatives

bell-wetherishness (n.)

clamour, noisiness.

[US]Spectator 387: The gregariousness and bell-wetherishness of the English people who must all do the same thing at once [F&H].