Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Crystal asked about the origin of the word blacklist. Ominous question: is she establishing one?

The color black often connotes negativity. I suspect that the association started in primitive times when nightfall signaled the period of danger, limitation, and fearful creatures going bump in the night. The contrast of day and night, light and dark, provided a powerful, easily understandable, and universal metaphor.

Besides designating something as evil, malignant, sinister, and deadly, black--as in blacklist--came to signify disgrace, undesirability, excommunication, and the imminent approach of sanctions or punishment. Similar images show up in black mark or black checkmark, black blot, and black spot. In financial circles, white data is countered by black data.

So a blacklist is “a list of the names of people, groups, etc., who have incurred suspicion, censure, or displeasure, and are typically therefore subject to a ban or other punishment.” [OED] An early appearance was in 1624 in Bishop J. Hall’s True Peace-maker: “Ye secret oppressors, kind drunkards, and who euer come within this blacke list of wickednesse.”

A variation was black book, as we see in this example found in N. Amhurst’s Terræ-filius (ed. 2) 115:   “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.” [1726]

And then, of course, there is the vulgar shit list.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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