origin of ‘black sheep’ as a derogatory appellation



a member of a family or group who is regarded as a disgrace to it




This was perhaps originally an allusion to the book of Genesis, 30. Jacob has already worked fourteen years for both of Laban’s daughters, and after Joseph’s birth he desires to take leave of Laban. They reach an agreement whereby Jacob’s wages will be (in the Revised Standard Version) “every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats” subsequently born in Laban’s flocks. As a scriptural expression, black sheep first appeared in the Coverdale Bible (1535), in which Genesis, 30:32, is:

I wyll go thorow all thy flockes to daye, and separate thou from amonge them all the shepe that be spotted and partye coloured, and all blacke shepe amonge the lambes. Now loke what shalbe partie coloured and spotted amōge the kyddes, the same shalbe my rewarde.

The collocation, however, is found neither in the Early Version (around 1382) nor in the Later Version (1395) of the Wycliffe Bible:

Early Version:
Turne abowt alle thi flockis, and seuer alle thi speckid sheep, and with speckyd flese, and what euere ȝolow, and speckid, and dyuerse colourid were, as wel in sheep as in geyt, shal be my mede.

Later Version:
Cumpasse thou alle thi flockis, and departe thou alle diuerse scheep and of spottid flees, and what euer thing schal be dun, and spottid, and dyuerse, as wel in scheep as in geet, it schal be my mede.

The King James Version (1611) does not use black sheep either:

I will passe through all thy flocke to day, remoouing from thence all the speckled and spotted cattell: and all the browne cattell among the sheepe, and the spotted and speckled among the goates, and of such shalbe my hire.

It is possible therefore that black sheep originally referred to something else. An anonymous ballad, probably written in the reign (1509-47) of King Henry VIII, is, superficially, an attack on enclosures (Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) complained in his Utopia (1516) that “sheep do eat up men”: there was ample land and food for the animals but not for humans); but this ballad is doubtless a satire against the order of mendicant friars, the number of whom had increased to so enormous an extent that England may be said to have been almost overrun by them; their power and influence were checked by the dissolution of monasteries under Henry VIII (Latin cuius contrarium falsum est means: which nobody can deny):

The blacke shepe is a perylous beast;
          Cuius contrarium falsum est.

The leon of lyme ys large and long;
The beare to fyght is stowte and strong;
But of all beastes that go or crepe,
The mightiest ys the horned shepe.
                    The blacke shepe, &c.

The shepe ys off a monstruous myght,
What thyng soeuer his hornes on lyght,
He bearyth downe bothe castell and towre,
None is him licke in marciall powre.
                    The blacke shepe, &c.

Syx hundreth howsys with cart and plowgh
I haue earst knowen, where nowght ys now
But grene moll-hilles, they are layde playne;
This cruell beast ouer all dothe raygne.
                    The blacke shepe, &c.

This shepe he is a wycked wyght,
Man, woman, and chylde he deuowreth quite,
No hold, no howse can him wythstande:
He swaloweth up both see and lande.
                    The blacke shepe, &c.

Men were wont ones off shepe to fede,
Shepe now eate men on dowtfull dede.
This wollwysshe shepe, this rampyng beast,
Consumeth all thorow west and est.
                    The blacke shepe, &c.

Halfe Englande ys nowght now but shepe,
In euerye corner they playe boe pepe;
Lorde, them confownde by twentye and ten,
And fyll their places with Cristen men.
                    The blacke shepe, &c.

The English epigrammatist and Church of England clergyman Thomas Bastard (1565/6–1618) perhaps referred to this ballad when he wrote, in Chrestoleros Seuen bookes of epigrames written by T B. (1598):

Sheepe haue eate vp our medows & our downes,
Our corne, our wood, whole villages & townes.
Yea, they haue eate vp many wealthy men.
Besides widowes and Orphane childeren.
Besides our statutes and our iron lawes,
Which they haue swallowed down into their maws.
Till now I thought the prouerbe did but iest,
Which said a blacke sheepe was a biting beast.

The more likely reasons for the derogatory meaning of black sheep, however, are that its fleece could not be dyed and was therefore less valuable than that of its paler siblings and that black has long had negative connotations.

In The Sincere Convert (1640), the English Puritan minister in America Thomas Shepard (1605-49) understood the scriptural meaning of black sheep as negative:

Cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100. places.

But on the contrary, in the book of Genesis, 30:33-43, the black lambs as well as the striped, speckled and spotted goats are the origin of Jacob’s wealth; he says to Laban:

(Revised Standard Version)
33 “So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come to look into my wages with you. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, shall be counted stolen.” 34 Laban said, “Good! Let it be as you have said.” 35 But that day Laban removed the he-goats that were striped and spotted, and all the she-goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had white on it, and every lamb that was black, and put them in charge of his sons; 36 and he set a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob; and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flock. 37 Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the rods. 38 He set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the runnels, that is, the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, 39 the flocks bred in front of the rods and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. 40 And Jacob separated the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban; and he put his own droves apart, and did not put them with Laban’s flock. 41 Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding Jacob laid the rods in the runnels before the eyes of the flock, that they might breed among the rods, 42 but for the feebler of the flock he did not lay them there; so the feebler were Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s. 43 Thus the man grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, maidservants and menservants, and camels and asses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.