A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of the expression "black sheep"?

August 21, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the origin of the term "black sheep"? I've spent hours in looking all the normal places, and found a lot of definitions, but no origin.

You need to find a better library, or maybe a better librarian. My sources were pretty obvious: Brewer's, the OED, and a few dictionaries of slang phrases.

The definition is pretty clear. A black sheep is a member of the group/family regarded as a disgrace, an embarrassment, a ne'er-do-well, the odd man out. The phrase arose in the late 18th century, probably from an older proverb, "There's a black sheep in every flock."

Black sheep, in those balmy pre-industrial days, were not as valuable as white sheep. None of the sources was explicit, but I presume white wool could be dyed into any color while black wool was more limited. Thus, the black sheep was the unwelcome oddity in the flock.

A similar term is bête noire, which is French for "black beast" and means something disliked or feared.

In European thought, the use of "black" is often associated with the devil, wickedness, and bad things in general: a black cat crossing your path is bad luck, etc. Probably this arises from black as the color of mourning, at least as far back as Rome in the second century AD, which likely borrowed it from the Egyptians. In the early days, it was thought that the body contained four humors/fluids that determined one's physical and mental qualities: one of the four humors was black bile, associated with melancholy, sadness, depression.

The term "black" used to refer to African people and their descendants dates back to the 14th Century, and is an interesting study in its own right.

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