throw the book at

To throw the book at someone is to sentence them to the maximum penalty for a crime or offense. The term is an Americanism dating to the early years of the twentieth century. The “book” in question, however, is a bit uncertain.

The most likely explanation is that the book isn’t a real one; it’s just a metaphorical law book or rule book. To throw the book at someone is to sentence them for every crime in said book. A variation on the familiar throw phrase dates to 1908 in the novel titled 9009 by James Hopper and Fred Bechdolt. (The 9009 in the title refers to the prison number of the novel’s main character.):

You’ll wish they’d handed you the book and you’d been hung.

It is possible, however, that the phrase is a clipping of a longer slang phrase. George Bronson-Howard’s 1911 novel An Enemy to Society: A Romance of New York of Yesterday and To-Day has the earliest known use of the throw variant, but unlike the other extant uses it makes a play on the various meanings of the word sentence. The phrase appears twice in that book:

But as soon as they finds you’ve got no political pull, the judges and all git very moral; throw the book at you and tell you to add up the sentences in it.

If he ever took a dislike to a gink like me and had him up before the court the judge ‘ud about throw the book at me and tell me to add up the sentences in it.

The phrase could have started out as this clever bon mot, or the tell one to add up the sentences in it could have been a flourish added by Bronson-Howard.

The standalone book, meaning a heavy sentence, especially a life sentence or the death penalty, is also common in U. S. prison slang, but doesn’t appear earlier than the phrases given above.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang, s. v., book, n., accessed 6 December 2016.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2014, s. v., book, n.

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