To be in someone’s bad books
To be in someone’s bad books is to be in disgrace or out of favour. It is not a situation many of us would choose to be in but on occasions it happens. Often it is a phrase used to chide a child but what are these books and why are they bad?
In times of strife and civil turmoil it is not uncommon for one side or the other to draw up lists of people they would like to get out-of-the-way. The Roman dictator, Sulla, compiled a list of what were known as proscriptions in 82 BCE and around forty years later the ill-starred triumvirate of Octavian, later to become Augustus, Mark Antony, and Lepidus also drew up their lists. Cicero was unfortunate enough to find himself on one of these scrolls and that was the end of him.
Given the influence of the Roman way of doing things on Western thought, culture and language our phrase could be a throwback to this way of identifying and eliminating your opponents. Mercifully, these days anyone who finds themselves in someone’s bad book is unlikely to be killed but they face some form of social ostracism, albeit temporary.
Whether this is the origin of our phrase is speculation but what is clear is that the noun book was used in the early 16th century for certain, and probably earlier, to indicate the extent of one’s interest and concern. In the poetic tract, The Parlyament of Deuylles (Devils), printed by W de Worde in 1509, we find the passage, “he is out of our bokes and we out of his.” It is perhaps an early example of if you are not on the list, you can’t come in.
Soon book gathered an adjective to accompany a possessive pronoun. The first such adjective seems to have been black. Robert Greene wrote Black Book’s Messenger, published just before his death in 1592, in which he layed “open the life and death of Ned Browne, one of the most notable cutpurses, cross-biters and cony-catchers that ever lived in England.” Greene was not as exhaustive in his listing of Browne’s felony as his preamble led the reader to believe because he then noted that “Ned Browne’s villanies..are too many to be described in my Blacke Book.”
By 1771, though, books, black in colour, were being used to record the indiscretions of those in the armed forces and supposedly studying at universities. It was defined thus; “a book kept for the purpose of registering the names of persons liable to censure or punishment, as in the English universities, or the English armies.” But by that time it was also being used in a figurative sense. The inestimable Francis Grose recorded in his Dictionary of the Vulgar the following definition; “He is down in the black book, that is, has a stain in his character.”
Qualitative adjectives were a later development. Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1839, used the figurative good book when Miss La Creevy says to Mr Noggs, “If you want to keep in the good books in that quarter, you had better not call her the old lady.” Wise advice, I’m sure. And its antonym, bad books, made an even later appearance, first used in George Perry’s History of the Church of England, published in 1861; “the Arminians, who at that time were in his bad books.”
Since then, most of us have appeared in figurative books, whether they be black, good or bad.