This term usually means a disreputable or disgraced member of a family. It may also refer to someone who is rebellious and doesn’t conform to the ethics, morals, beliefs, or even the dress code of a particular group. The individual is typically labeled as a troublemaker.
Why sheep? Badgers, dolphins, pandas and penguins are all primarily black, but are considered cute. ‘Black’ isn’t always linked with ‘bad.’ It could be because shepherds disliked black sheep because their fleeces weren’t suitable for dying and so were worth less than those of white sheep.
A black sheep is the hero of a poem, too. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep is one of the oldest English nursery rhymes and was first printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, circa 1744. This original is almost the same as the version we know today:
Bah, Bah a black Sheep,
Have you any Wool?
Yes merry have I,
Three Bags full,
One for my master,
One for my Dame,
One for the little Boy
That lives down the lane
Over time, the phrase has been adopted by groups to mark themselves as radical or extreme. For example, a particular Marine fighter squadron during World War II, known as Marine Attack Squadron 214, was nicknamed the Black Sheep Squadron because of their radical exploits during the war. The term has also been utilized in the area of psychology to describe how a group will judge their own nonconforming member more harshly than the nonconforming members of a rival group. This is known as the Black Sheep Effect.
All very interesting, but it doesn’t answer my usual question of where it came from originally. Maybe nobody knows. Do you?