“If the mission is successful, India will become only the fourth nation to visit the red planet after the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe.” (Associated Press story about India’s rocket launch to Mars, printed in San Francisco Chronicle, November 6, 2013; later corrected to say three nations plus the European Space Agency)
When the Pacifica Tribune website is run by the San Jose Mercury News (50 miles away), this is the kind of absurdity you get: a headline typo that shows total lack of awareness of Pacifica. And if you think that's bad, did you know that Tribune display ads are laid out by "designers" in India?
"Black sheep" is rather an odd phrase to choose to epitomise worthlessness. Why sheep? Black cats are supposed to be lucky and badgers, dolphins, pandas and penguins, which are all primarily black, are considered cute.
First thoughts might suggest that it came about because of the linking of black things with bad things, which is a long standing allusion in English texts -- black mood, black looks or (where I come from) the Black Country. It may also be because shepherds disliked black sheep as their fleeces weren't suitable for dying and so were worth less than those of white sheep.
In fact, it is more likely to have derived from a bit of misinterpretation by the writers of early English Bibles. Myles Coverdale's 1535 Bible, which was the first complete bible printed in English, renders Genesis 30:32 as:
‘All blacke shepe amonge the lambes’
which Coverdale had translated from a German source text. Like bloggers and web publishers these days, the writers of early bibles copied from each other without checking their sources. Other bibles have the text as ‘all the browne cattell among the sheepe’ or ‘every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb’. In the original texts, the Genesis 30:32 story is that the shepherd Jacob suggested that he remove any spotted, dark or otherwise identifiable sheep or goats from his master's flock in order to be able to later demonstrate that he hadn't stolen any white ones. The 'black sheep' were actually a mark of integrity rather than disrepute.
The 'Chinese whispers' of the early bible versions caused the original meaning to become lost and confused readers into the belief that the dark sheep were removed because they were worthless.
The first record of 'black sheep' in a derogatory sense that I can find in print is 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.
Meanwhile, back in England, black sheep maintained the same status as black cats. The long-standing English country tradition that black sheep are omens of good fortune remained until the 19th century. The Folk-Lore Record, 1878, included this piece:
"We speak figuratively of the one black sheep that is the cause of sorrow in a family; but in its reality it is regarded by the Sussex shepherd as an omen of good luck to his flock."
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 and is certainly much older than the 18th century. The original printed form is almost the same as the version familiar 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
Like most nursery rhymes, the interpretation of the text is a source of debate. It has been suggested in recent years that it contains a racial slur which, to this reader at least, seems speculative and based on little more than it includes the word 'black'. If there is a negative connotation it is that the rhyme may refer to the unpopular export tax on wool imposed in 1275.
That country lore was overtaken by the figurative use of the 'black sheep' that we now commonly use.
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[Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation differs from American English style.]
1. “Deep in the mountains of northern
Idaho, miles from the nearest town, lays evidence of a little-known portion of
a shameful chapter in American history.” (Shame on the Associated Press for using the incorrect
verb "lays" instead of "lies"!)
2. "Victim of stabbing was wife of her
killer” (Shame on the San Francisco Chronicle for this awkward headline. It would have been much simpler as “Man
fatally stabs his wife”!)
3. World Wide Words (worldwidewords.org) publishes bloopers like the following in its "Sic!" column: "(from an article in The Independent on August 12 about the
Australian general election) On the campaign trail and addressing a
Liberal Party event in the city of Melbourne [opposition leader
Tony] Abbott said: 'No one—however smart, however well-educated,
however experienced—is the suppository of all wisdom.'"(Our writer friend Mitchell Hall says, "If
the editors of World Wide News find similar statements, they could cite them
under a new heading, Analects.")
NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.” Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
yet another example of spellcheckeritis, KOMO (komonews.com) in Seattle used
the phrase “sorted history” (should have been “sordid history”) in an August 2
story about a city ban on offensive words. Remember: Do NOT trust your
spellchecker (computer or smartphone) to use the right word. All it can do is
correct spelling, but it does not know the difference between sorted and
sordid, among other things. Thanks to Peter Loeb for keeping a sharp eye out
for these kinds of things, both in print and on the Internet. The problem of
human overreliance on technology is leading to more accidents, both in grammar
and transportation. We humans are still smarter than computers, and we need to
be on top of things and stay sharp, whether it’s in publishing or piloting.