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On the books means "part of the law".

These changes would add little to the civil rights laws now on the books.

I know the meaning of this idiom, and idioms are used as they are, but idioms often have stories behind. Why is it not "in the books"? Could it be that in the old days people used slates of rocks to write on?

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    People did use slates of rock to write on, but not within the period of time where English starts to become relevant. The word book itself is related to beech, which is probably from runes being carved on wooden surfaces—a later stage of writing than stone slates. All that said, I would assume that on the books is a much, much later phrase, dating from a time when books were actual books, though I don’t know off-hand where the admittedly unusual preposition comes from. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 13 '14 at 11:36
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    I believe this usage is more abstract or figurative, as it's often seen with other nouns (rolls, for example) to suggest something public, something blazoned onto a forum wall for all the citizenry to see. It doesn't refer to the bare act of inscribing text into a more-or-less esoteric record. – Robusto Sep 13 '14 at 12:35
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    I don't know when on the books first started to be used in this exact sense, but I'm pretty sure initially it specifically meant [in/on] the accounting books. The legal sense arises from a shortening of on the statute book, which as that Google Books search shows, goes back to at least 1789. – FumbleFingers Sep 13 '14 at 12:40
  • Thank you Robusto for the why, and FF for the where. Thanks JBJ for the correction. After FF's comments, I found the following definition in CALD3: " statute book (UK): When a law is on or reaches the statute book, it has been formally approved and written down and can be used in a law court. " – learner Sep 13 '14 at 13:01
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    @FumbleFingers: You're probably right: the earliest instances of on the books that I can find, from 1773 onwards, are all about accounting. Note that I cannot find any instances of on the statute book(s) as old as 1773: they seem to begin a decade later. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 13 '14 at 13:11
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My guess is that this is like "on the list" vs "in the list". You generally append new entries to an account book or ledger (more generally, you edit it). It is not like a book that is written once and for all. The same is true of laws and law books (believe it or not).

When things are added to a list, they are typically put on it (at the end), not in it. This is the same kind of action associated with a log book, an account book, etc. In many respects they are lists.

Even when, as for a law book, you can add entries in the middle or modify existing entries, the general action is updating something that is on the list. IOW, I think it is the list nature that dominates for this kind of "book".

And for on the books you are indeed checking whether something is listed, i.e., is on the list that is the book.

[Of course, a queue is appended to similarly. Yet some people (like me) say wait in line and get in line instead of wait on line and get on line.]

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  • Thank you; luckily, thought of the same analogy with the list, though never was familiar with accounting business – learner Sep 13 '14 at 16:03
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    Me neither. I know nothing about accounting and am generally unaccountable. – Drew Sep 13 '14 at 16:27

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