Black Sheep of the Family: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
November 10, 2023

The phrase "black sheep of the family" refers to someone who is different or doesn't fit in with the rest of their family or group. This idiom paints a vivid picture of someone who stands out, not always for good reasons.

In short:

"Black sheep of the family" describes a person who is considered different or odd compared to the rest of their family or group.

What Does “Black Sheep of the Family” Mean?

"Black sheep of the family" refers to a family member who is different from the rest of the family in a way that others disapprove of. It is used to describe someone who does not conform to their family's norms, expectations, or values. They stand out as being rebellious, problematic, or an embarrassment.

  • The "black sheep" is often regarded as a troublemaker or a stain on the family's reputation, even if they aren't necessarily "bad."
  • It originates from the idea that black sheep stand out against a flock of white sheep. The color difference acts as a metaphor for deviating from the norm.
  • Synonyms include "outlier," "pariah," "misfit," "bad apple," and "problem child.

While the term might sound negative, it's not always used in a derogatory way. Sometimes, it's used affectionately to describe someone who's simply unique or marches to the beat of their drum.

Where Does “Black Sheep of the Family” Come From?

The phrase seems to have originated from the story of Jacob in Genesis 30:32, where Jacob agreed with his uncle that he would be allowed to keep any speckled or dark-colored lambs and goats for his own as payment for tending his uncle’s sheep. However, the phrase as we know it today arose in the late 18th century, probably from an older proverb, “There’s a black sheep in every flock.” It denotes a member of a group who was unlike the others and of less worth, possibly because black sheep's wool was sometimes of lower value as it could not be dyed.

Historical Example

The first record of ‘black sheep’ in a derogatory sense can be found in print from an English Puritan who emigrated to America in 1635, the appropriately named Thomas Shepard, in the evangelical text The Sincere Convert, 1640:

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."

10 Examples of “Black Sheep of the Family” in Sentences

Let's look at how this idiom can be used in various sentences:

  • After dropping out of college, Jake felt like the black sheep of the family.
  • Being the only artist in a family of doctors, she often felt like the black sheep.
  • He's always been the black sheep, choosing to travel the world instead of following the family business.
  • Despite her successful career, she still feels like the black sheep at family gatherings.
  • He was the black sheep in school, always questioning the teachers and challenging the status quo.
  • She's the black sheep of the group, always coming up with out-of-the-box ideas.
  • Being cooped up in the house made him feel even more like the black sheep.
  • His decision to move abroad made him the black sheep in his close-knit community.
  • She's always been the black sheep, but her unique perspective makes her valuable to the team.
  • He might be the black sheep now, but his experiences will translate into wisdom later.

Examples of “Black Sheep of the Family” in Pop Culture

Over the years, the phrase has made its way into various forms of media.

Here are some examples:

  • The movie "Stripes" stars Bill Murray, who plays a character considered the black sheep of his family. The film explores his journey as he joins the army to find a sense of belonging.
  • The song "Black Sheep" by John Anderson delves into the life of a man who feels like the black sheep of his family. The lyrics express his sense of isolation and yearning for acceptance.
  • In the TV show "Bloodline," the black sheep son of a respected family threatens to expose dark secrets, putting sibling loyalties to the test. The show delves into the complexities of family dynamics.
  • An online article on LonerWolf titled "Are You the Black Sheep of the Family?" explores the emotional and psychological aspects of being the black sheep, offering advice on how to cope with the associated feelings.

Synonyms: Other/Different Ways to Say “Black Sheep of the Family"

There are other ways to convey a similar meaning. 

  • Outcast
  • Misfit
  • Odd one out
  • Rebel

10 Frequently Asked Questions About “Black Sheep of the Family”:

  • What does "black sheep of the family" mean?

It refers to someone who is considered different or doesn't fit in with the rest of their family or group.

  • Where did the idiom originate?

The term comes from the historical value of black sheep, whose wool was seen as less valuable because it couldn't be dyed.

  • Is it always used in a negative context?

No, sometimes it's used affectionately to describe someone unique or different.

Yes, it can be used to describe someone whose unique perspective or skills brought something positive to a situation.

  • Is there a song named "black sheep"?

Yes, by Gin Wigmore, among others.

  • How can I use the idiom in a sentence?

You can say something like, "Despite her prime achievements, she still feels like the black sheep at family gatherings."

  • Are there other idioms related to animals that describe people?

Yes, like "wolf in sheep's clothing" or "eager beaver."

  • Can it be used in a professional setting?

It depends on the context. It's best to be cautious and ensure it's appropriate for the situation.

  • Is it used in other languages?

Many languages have their own idioms to describe someone who stands out, but the exact phrase might not translate directly.

  • Is it offensive to call someone a "black sheep"?

It can be, depending on the context and intent. It's always important to be sensitive to how language might affect others.

Final Thoughts About “Black Sheep of the Family”

The phrase "black sheep of the family" refers to a member of a family who is markedly different from other members, usually in a way that is considered undesirable or embarrassing.

To sum it up:

  • The idiom originates from the idea that black sheep stand out from a flock of white sheep. Their darker color acts as a metaphor for deviating from the norm.
  • It is used to characterize a family member who does not conform to expectations, values, or standards shared by the rest of the family unit. They are seen as the rebels, problem children, or stains on the family's reputation.
  • For example, a family may have a long tradition of doctors, lawyers, and engineers, but one child chooses to drop out and become an artist, earning them the label of "black sheep.
  • While the person may not necessarily have done anything objectively bad, their different interests and lifestyles set them apart in a marked and often disapproved way.
  • Calling someone the "black sheep" often carries a negative connotation but can also simply refer to their outlier status compared to more traditional family members.

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