English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Throw the brook at them!

Q: Do you know the origin and precise meaning of “brought to brook”? I used it recently as a shorthand for “made to answer for one’s bad actions” or “brought to justice.” But I may be misusing it and couldn’t readily find it with a Google search.

A: You’ve mushed together two somewhat similar constructions that are often conflated: “bring someone to book” (that is, to bring him to justice or punish him) and “bring someone to brook something” (bring her to accept or tolerate it).

The two expressions are often seen in similar passive constructions: “We have to make sure he’s brought to book” … “I don’t think she’ll ever be brought to brook their bigotry.”

Both usages showed up in English in the early 1800s, though we could find only one (“bring to book”) in dictionaries.

However, we’ve found many versions of “bring to brook” in 19th-century  writing, and some writers have used “brook” in the sense of “book” (though lexicographers don’t acknowledge this usage).

As you can imagine, the noun “book” is quite old, first showing up in the writings of King Alfred in the late 800s. In Old English, the word referred to various kinds of written documents, including deeds, lists, treatises, and literary works.

At the end of the 1400s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “book” (later “books”) came to mean the accounts of a business.

And by the 1500s, “book” was being used loosely in the sense of an official or personal set of standards.

The expression “bring to book” first showed up in the early 1800s in the sense of requiring someone to account for his actions.

The OED defines the expression as “to bring to account, cause to show authority (for statements, etc.); to examine the evidence for (a statement, etc.), investigate.” The earliest example in the dictionary is from an 1804 issue of Sporting Magazine:

“ ‘Tis not my business to examine your accounts, Sir—but should I bring you to book … there is something in that sly countenance that tells me you have sometimes staked your credit at too great a venture.”

The OED, like the other dictionaries we’ve checked, doesn’t have an entry for “bring to brook,” but it includes the verb “brook,” which meant to “make use of” or “profit by” when it showed up in Old English.

In the 1500s, according to Oxford’s citations, it took on the sense of to “put up with, bear with, endure, tolerate.”   

Here’s an example from Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667): “Heav’n … Brooks not the works of violence and Warr.”

And here’s one from Northanger Abbey (1803), Jane Austen’s first novel: “The General … could ill brook the opposition of his son.”

All the OED citations for this sense of “brook” are in negative constructions, and the dictionary says that’s the only way the usage is seen now.

As for “bring to brook,” we’ve found many examples of the expression used in the 19th century in the sense of bringing someone to accept or tolerate something.

Here’s an entertaining equine example from Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae, an 1826 book of religious writing by Robert Southey:

“It was always a gentle beast, and for that reason had always been ridden by the nobleman’s wife. But after carrying the Pope, the horse could never again be brought to brook his mistress; showing by the most expressive snorting and neighing, and by his indignant motions, that, consecrated as his back had been, no woman must ever presume to take her seat there.”

We’ve also seen quite a few examples, especially in the 20th century, of “bring to brook” used in the sense of “bring to book”—that is, bring to justice or punish.

Here’s one from a 1906 report by the National Association of Training Schools, an organization representing institutions for young offenders:

“You cannot solve the juvenile question by merely punishing the child. You must reach the home—the guilty parent who in most instances is the cause of the child’s undoing. The parents should be brought to brook for delinquency of the child as well as truancy.”

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