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What Does It Mean to Be in Someone's "Bad Books"?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated: May 23, 2024

To be in someone’s “bad books” means to be out of favor with that person. It is an English phrase and understanding of its meaning may be culturally-dependent. It is an alliterative collocation insinuating that a person has a book where he or she writes down the names of people he or she does not like. It implies that a person in the book is, therefore, excluded from access and favors from the book’s owner.

The term “bad books” was first recorded in 1509 in “The Parlyment of Deuylles.” In 1592, Robert Greene wrote about creating a black book of criminal activity. The book named various felons, as he saw them, and wrote about their crimes. It is clear that the idea of good books, bad books and black books comes from a literal and physical thing that has become, over time, figurative.

Some believe the idea of being in someone’s bad books comes from being out of his books or being out of his life. This is the idea of social exclusion. It is true to say that being in such a situation tends to exclude a person from the other’s life, but there is more to the emotion than just exclusion. The person putting the other in the book of bad people has ill feelings towards the others. These ill feelings may or may not spread to friends and followers of the person with the figurative book.

An origin of the more aggressive idea probably comes from the idea of proscription. To proscribe means to write down someone’s name. There is more to it than that; it implies the person is harmful to society and he should forfeit his position in society, his property and, potentially, his life. The dictator Sulla issued such a list of proscriptions in 82 BC and so did the triumvirate of Octavian, later Augustus, Mark Antony and Lepidus. This latter proscription led to the death of Cicero.

These were literally lists written on paper or parchment. A book, in ancient terms, could be both a scroll and a codex. The modern idea of a book is synonymous with a codex and this may have developed during the medieval era. It is possible, therefore, to believe that the idea of being in someone’s bad books developed out of literal books listing people those in power disapproved of. Such black books probably existed during the French Revolution and possibly during the English Civil War.

The phrase is used as a statement of fact or as a warning. It is usually employed by a third party to the proscriber and the proscribed. It may be used to tell someone to keep in line or to curry favor with someone or it may be used to explain why a person is not seen in the same social situation as someone else.

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