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To be in someone’s black books

Q From Neil Livingston: Do you have any notion of the origin of the phrase in the black books? I’ve read it may have something to do with convicts being logged by immigration or customs into their registers on arrival in Tasmania.

A You’ve got the right idea, but as it happens, it’s older than that.

There were several literal black books in English history, such as the Black Book of the Exchequer of about 1175, which recorded the royal revenues, and the Black Book of the Admiralty, a code of rules for the government of the navy, possibly from the fourteenth century. The most famous one recorded monastic abuses uncovered by official visitors and provided the evidence for the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s by Henry VIII. Generally, black book was used for any official book bound in black. It was also used for the Bible, commonly so bound.

By the sixteenth century, the term had started to be used for a book in which names were recorded of people who had become liable to punishment or censure for some reason. In 1726, this description appeared in Terrae Filius: or the Secret History of the University of Oxford, by Nicholas Amherst: “The black book is a register of the university, kept by the proctor, in which he records any person who affronts him, or the university; and no person, who is so recorded, can proceed to his degree.”

So to be in somebody’s black books (the usual form of the idiom today) is to be marked down or censured in some way, to have done something that has caused significant disapproval. Frederick Niven summed up the approach and the mentality in The Flying Years in 1942: “It was part of the Ettrick policy to seek occasion for fault-finding. William kept a little black book with alphabetical index in which he entered against the names of the members of his staff all sins committed by them, however venial. Let any dare to approach him with a request for a promised increase of salary and out would come the Black Book. That was its main object.”

That rings a little oddly today, since little black book has taken on a specific meaning. It also indicates a record, but one of valuable names and contact details, usually of persons with whom one has been, or would like to be, amorously associated. Whether or not that's a record of bad behaviour depends on one's view of such matters.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 Oct. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 15 October 2005.