Q From Ann Waddell: What does blotted her copy book mean?
A To blot one’s copybook means to commit some gaffe that spoils one’s record. It’s mainly a British or Commonwealth phrase, though rather old-fashioned. A look at recent examples shows that it has survived almost exclusively in sports journalism. A typical example appeared in the Racing Post on 19 July 2004: “Westender, last year’s Champion Hurdle runner-up, blotted his copybook in dramatic style when refusing at the first fence of the beginners’ chase and catapulting jockey Timmy Murphy to the ground in the process.” Another recent British example, from the Daily Telegraph, shows how it was once more widely used: “At the end of the war, Deedes notes, Muggeridge of MI6 ‘blotted his copybook by befriending PG Wodehouse and his wife’” (Wodehouse had been accused of treachery because he broadcast on German radio during the War).
Our schools now don’t have copybooks, or liquid ink that might cause blots, but at one time the image would have been evocative. The books contained examples of handwriting for pupils to copy in the spaces provided. To drip or smear ink on your copybook was a sign of inferior penmanship or clumsiness that was greatly looked down on. An example appeared in 1871 in Little Men by Louisa May Alcott: “Franz heard him say his lessons there, so no one could hear his blunders or see how he blotted his copybook.”
It wasn’t until the era of the copybook was almost over that the phrase took on a figurative meaning. The first case I can find is dated 1933, from A Prince of the Captivity by John Buchan: “Mr Stannix told me that he would have been safe for the vacant under-secretary-ship last spring if he hadn’t blotted his copy-book.”