The Jury Didn’t ‘Throw the Book’ at Derek Chauvin

In the general sense of relief over the guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, social media has been a-clamor with the observation that the jury “threw the book” at the former police officer. But the wordsmith in me would venture to suggest that the metaphor might be the wrong one for this moment.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly among those relieved, even though the verdict represents only a small measure of accountability, and there remains so much more work to do. But the notion of throwing the book originally implied something quite different from the suggestion that justice has been done; and recovering that original meaning might enrich our conversation.

The metaphor of throwing the book at a defendant crops up as early as 1897. Within a few years it had become common as a way to refer to the handing out of harsh punishment. “Judge Gordon threw the book at a particularly hardened beggar,” we read in the Seattle Star in 1911.

This sense has remained current ever since. “If he doesn’t turn over a new leaf,” wrote Dear Abby in answering a 1969 letter from a man with a thieving colleague, “he deserves to have the book thrown at him.” In 1990, when Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, D.C., was facing drug charges, the syndicated columnist Donald Kaul wrote: “I think we should give him a fair trial — and then throw the book at him!”

But there’s also an earlier meaning that we’ve lost, one that better fits the actual words of the phrase: a sense of injustice, that the punishment is more than fits the crime.

In his 1947 book about baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, J.G. Taylor Spink wrote “I always thought he threw the book at Ray Fisher.” In context, Spink meant that Landis had overreacted, imposing a lifetime ban on the respected pitcher for at most a minor infraction.

That same year, an article aimed at schoolteachers warned them not to “cover too much ground,” thus discouraging children’s interest in a subject like electricity: “Children show a natural interest in it and Bang! we throw the whole book at them. Too often, what began as an interest ends as an aversion.”

A 1960s-era pamphlet from the U.S. Small Business Administration also reflects this more negative sense. At sales meetings, the pamphlet advises, “Don’t cram too much into a session,” lest you “risk the confusion which usually results when you throw the whole book.”

And a 1965 article in the magazine “Good Housekeeping” advised mothers to choose a series of small punishments for their teenagers rather than one big one: “It’s a mistake to wait until you’re exasperated by a whole string of offenses, then throw the book at her.”

In this earlier understanding, throwing the book carries a negative connotation, suggesting that the thrower has overreacted. This forgotten sense of going too far is one I rather like. Throwing the book is, after all, an active and angry metaphor. If we close our eyes and picture an actual scene in which a volume goes flying, it’s hard to imagine a proper motive. Were judges or prosecutors to start throwing books in real life, we’d think they’d taken leave of their senses. Where could so inappropriate an image have originated?

I suspect that the notion comes originally from 19th century fiction, where a familiar trope to signal anger or anguish was for characters to leap to their feet and throw down the books they were reading. In a popular 1896 novel by Robert Barr, the heroine “sprang suddenly to her feet and threw the book on the deck.” A young boy in an 1868 novel, frustrated by a difficult homework assignment, “angrily threw the book on the floor.” An 1884 novel set in Cornwall features a scene where an angry miner begins a confrontation by “throwing the book on the counter ... with considerable violence.” On the pages of the era’s novels and magazines, books went flying everywhere: onto the floor, across the room, into the fire, over the rail.

The courts of that era, moreover, heard many a case that literally involved a defendant throwing a book at somebody — apparently a method of showing anger in real life too. By the dawn of the 20th century, when the metaphor took on its current meaning as a reference to harsh punishment, it also preserved its original sense of an inappropriate degree of fury. The “notorious desperado” Frank Miller had exactly this in mind in 1921 when, asked why he escaped from jail, he pointed to his life sentence: “The judge threw the book at me,” he said — implying that the sentence was unfair.

All of which is to say that the original sense of unwonted fury is one we should preserve. And applying it to the present moment, we can say with confidence that nobody threw the book at Derek Chauvin; instead, he got the justice he deserved.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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