Q: You say the phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 17th century. That might be true, but it’s only the result of an even earlier meaning. “Black sheep” is actually a very old weaving term. Black sheep were considered unlucky because you couldn’t dye the wool any other colors.
A: We haven’t found any evidence of “black sheep” used as a weaving term, either before or after the phrase came to mean a disreputable member of a group.
In fact, today the undyed wool of so-called “black sheep” (they actually come in various shades of black, brown, and gray) is prized for its beauty and its natural qualities.
However, in earlier times the difficulty of dyeing their wool may have contributed to the “disreputable” usage, along with a biblical reference to black sheep and a negative sense of “black” that dates from Anglo-Saxon days.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “black sheep” meaning a bad character is from a 17th-century religious treatise about the conversion process in Congregational churches of New England:
“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.” From The Sincere Convert (1640), by Thomas Shepard, an English-born minister of the First Church in Cambridge, MA, and of Harvard College.
We’ve seen several earlier examples of “black sheep” used negatively, though not quite so strongly. An anonymous satirical ballad believed written in the 16th century, for example, uses the term to attack mendicant friars.
Here’s the refrain: “The blacke shepe is a perylous beast; / Cuius contrarium falsum est.” (The Latin means “Which nobody can deny.”)
The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the negative use of “black sheep” may originally have alluded to passages in English or German translations of Genesis in the 16th century.
It describes the usage as “perhaps originally with allusion to Genesis 30:32, where Jacob selects ‘all blacke shepe amonge the lambes’ ” (from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 English translation of the Bible), or perhaps after the German “alles, was schwartz ist vnter den lemmern” (from Martin Luther’s earliest draft of the passage in 1523), or “alle schwartze schafe [vnter den lemmern]” in Luther’s final 1545 German Bible. We added the bracketed German.
The passage from Genesis refers to Jacob’s offer to care for Laban’s flock of sheep if he can keep all the black and spotted lambs as payment. Laban accepts, apparently believing black sheep to be less valuable than white. The passage is translated differently in other versions of the Bible. The King James Version, for example, has it as “all the brown cattle among the sheep.” (“Cattle” was once a collective term for cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and other domestic animals.)
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (2d ed., 2013), by Christine Ammer, suggests that the use of “black sheep” for a disreputable person “is based on the idea that black sheep were less valuable than white ones because it was more difficult to dye their wool different colors.”
Writers have commented since classical times on the difficulty of dyeing the wool of black sheep (a more accurate description might be dark sheep).
The earliest remark we’ve seen on the subject is from Historiae Naturalis, an encyclopedic work by the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder: “lana ovis nigrae, cui nullus alius color incursaverit” (“black sheep whose wool will be dyed no other color”).
Pliny’s work was well known among English scholars. A 17th-century dictionary of English and Latin terms, for example, translates the passage above as “the wool of a black sheep mixed with no other colour” (A Copious Dictionary in Three Parts, 1678, by Francis Gouldman).
Among the various theories about how “black sheep” became a negative term, the pejorative use of the word “black” in English may have played a significant role.
As we’ve said, “black” has had negative connotations since Anglo-Saxon days, a usage that the OED describes as “widespread in other European languages, frequently in an antonymic relationship with senses of words meanings ‘white.’ ”
The dictionary says this usage “became particularly strong in the medieval Christian tradition” and would “proliferate in the early modern period … probably connected in part with negative cultural attitudes towards black people prevalent in the context of the Atlantic slave trade.”
As we say in a 2009 post (“The light and dark of language”), the word “black” may have come from Old Teutonic roots that originally meant scorched or charred or burned. A prehistoric Indo-European root has been reconstructed as bhleg (“burn”).
In Old English, the adjective “black” could mean “very evil or wicked; iniquitous; foul, hateful,” according to the dictionary. The earliest Oxford citation is from a scientific and theological treatise written by a Benedictine cleric in the late 10th century:
“Hig ne þicgeað þæs lambes flæsc þe soð Crist ys, ac þæs dracan þe wæs geseald þam blacan folce to mete, þæt ys þam synfullum” (“they [the faithless] don’t partake of the flesh of the lamb, the truth of Christ, but the Devil was given to provide for those black people that are sinners”). From the Enchiridion (Manual) of Byrhtferð, a monk and priest at Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire.
Finally, here’s a Middle English example, which we’ve expanded, that uses “black flocks” (“blake flokkes”) much as “black sheep” was later used:
“Whanne þe Romayns were a goo, þanne breke out blake flokkes of Scottes and of Pictes, as wormes brekep out of here holes aʒeinst þe hete of þe sonne” (“When the Romans were gone, then the black flocks of Scotts and Picts broke out, as snakes break out of their holes anticipating the heat of the sun”). From Polychronicon, John Trevisa’s translation, written sometime before 1387, of a 14th-century Latin chronicle by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden.