in someone’s good books – blacklist


Black Book of the Exchequer

The Black Book of the Exchequer
photograph: The National Archives/History of government





The earliest black books were record books or ledgers usually relating to finance or administration, and the adjective seems to have had no other significance than to indicate the colour of the binding. For example, in a letter dated 7th August 1465, John Paston wrote that “the certeyn somme is writen in my blak book of foreyn reseytes”.

More specifically, Black Book is the name of various official record books, usually bound in black. The Black Book of the Exchequer is a book of documents, probably compiled in the early 13th century by Alexander de Swereforde, containing an official account of the royal revenues, etc., at the time of its compilation. The Black Book of the Admiralty is an ancient code of rules relating to maritime law, based on the laws of Oléron, an island off the Atlantic coast of France, and codified in 1336 during the reign of King Edward III. And a Black Book of Lincoln’s Inn is any of a series of record books relating to Lincoln’s Inn, London, in which are recorded the minutes and memoranda of the governing Council of Benchers.

The Black Book is also an official report allegedly prepared in 1535-6 for King Henry VIII, after an investigation into the condition and administration of the monasteries. It was first mentioned by Alexander Nowell († 1602), Dean of St Paul’s, in A reproufe, written by Alexander Nowell, of a booke entituled, A proufe of certayne articles in religion denied by M. Iuell, set furth by Thomas Dorman, Bachiler of Diuinitie (1565):

The Idolatrie, supersticion, hypocrisic, and wickednesse of the Monkes, Nunnes, and Priestes themselues were growen so greate, and so heauie now, that no foundacions, though sure and good, were hable any longer to beare and abide them. Let the horrible historie of their darke, dreadfull, and moste diuellishe dooynges, notified to kyng Henrie the eight, and after to the Parliament house, by the reporte of the visitours, retournyng from their visitacion of Abbaies, and the Monkes & Nunnes themselues, in their owne confessions subscribed with their owne handes, bee a proofe thereof: whiche beyng regestered in a blacke booke, might more iustlie bee called doumes daie, then any recorde this daie remainyng in Englande, reuealyng suche matter, as thei had thought should haue remained hidde vnto the greate daie of reuelation of all secreates, if euer thei looked for it.


The term black book also denotes a record of the names of people liable to censure or punishment and a book containing this. Here, the adjective simply connotes the negative content. The first recorded use of the term is figurative: in The Vnion of the two noble and illustrate famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (1548), the English lawyer, historian and Member of Parliament Edward Hall (1497-1547) wrote:

Their king, a young stripling more meet for a tennis play than a warlike camp, claimeth the crown, scepter, and sovereignty of the very substance of the French nation by battle; then he and his intend to occupy this country, inhabit this land, destroy our wives and children, extinguish our blood, and put our names in the black book of oblivion.

The phrase to be in someone’s black book(s), meaning to be in disfavour with someone, is first attested in The Hermit Converted: or, The Maid of Bath Married (1771), a play by Adam Moses Emanuel Cooke (1722-83):

The Knight has played the truant in love at last [...]. No doubt the Knight is in her black book for that, as long as he lives.

In the 1788 edition of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Francis Grose thus defined black book:

He is down in the black book, i.e. has a stain in his character. A black book is kept in most regiments, wherein the names of all persons sentenced to punishment are recorded.


But the military explanation given by Grose is not satisfactory because, from the literal sense of a bound set of blank sheets for writing in, book has long been used to denote a notional record of actions for which a person may be called to accountFor example, in A consolatorie epistle, to the English-East-India Companie, for their vnsufferable wrongs sustayned in Amboyna, by the Dutch there (1625), the clergyman and musician Thomas Myriell (circa 1580-1625) wrote:

This late inhumane Practise in Amboyna* is registred in Gods blacke Booke to bee repaid againe vnto the Actors, with full measure in due time.

(* On 9th March 1623, ten English merchants were beheaded on Amboyna in Indonesia by order of Harman van Speult, the Dutch governor of the island.)

Slightly earlier, in 1618, in his sermon The Happiness of the Church, the Church of England clergyman Thomas Adams (1583-1652) had discussed the meaning of book in what Moses says to the Lord in Exodus, 32:31-33 (New International Version):

31 So Moses went back to the Lord and said, ‘Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.’
33 The Lord replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book’.

Thomas Adams wrote:

By this book I think he means God’s favour; as we usually say, to be in a man’s favour is to be in his books. We speak of one that hath dissemblingly cozened us, “Such a man shall never come in my books”. For you will not enter that man into your book, whom you do not both trust and favour. To be blotted out of God’s book, is to be liable to his displeasure, subjectual to his judgments.

Also in biblical language, the book of life is a record of the names of those to be rewarded with eternal life. In the New International Version, The Revelation of St John the Divine, 20:12, is:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.


The phrase in someone’s books, now obsolete, has been replaced by in someone’s good books, which is first recorded in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839) by Charles Dickens (1812-70):

“You mean Mrs Nickleby?” said Miss La Creevy. “Then I tell you what, Mr. Noggs, if you want to keep in the good books in that quarter, you had better not call her the old lady any more, for I suspect she wouldn’t be best pleased to hear you”.

Similarly, the phrase in someone’s bad books, also first recorded in the 1830s, has replaced out of someone’s books, meaning in disfavour with someone and attested as early as 1509 in The Parlyament of Deuylles (The Parliament of Devils):

I wolde he had ended our stryfe
He is out of our bokes and we out of his


Comparable to black book, the term blacklist, meaning a list of people or groups regarded as unacceptable or untrustworthy and often marked down for punishment or exclusion, seems to date back to the early 17th century. In The True Peace-Maker, a sermon of September 1624, the Bishop of Norwich, religious writer, and satirist Joseph Hall (1574-1656) wrote:

Hear this, then, wheresoever ye are, ye secret Oppressors, ye profane Scoffers, ye foul mouthed Swearers, ye close Adulterers, ye kind Drunkards, and whoever come within this black list of wickedness: how can ye be loyal, while you lodge traitors in your bosoms? protest what ye will; your sins break the peace, and conspire against the sacred crown and dignity of your Sovereign.

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