This is the first in a series that examines how popular sayings came about in Anglo-Celtic culture. We start with “Black Sheep”.
From the time when the wool trade became established as the backbone of the English economy in the Middle Ages, black sheep were considered less valuable than white ones, because their wool could not be easily dyed.
Since most domestic sheep range in colour from white to light brown, black sheep have always been in the minority. By the eighteenth century, a ‘black sheep’ had come to mean a person out of favour, someone oddly different and therefore a renegade.
The idea of the ‘odd one out’ in a flock is still current when the least successful or admirable member of a family is referred to as ‘the black sheep of the family’.