What is a Brown Study?

Sheri Cyprus

The expression "brown study" is a fourteenth century British term that started out meaning a dark melancholy mood, but later came to mean a state of thinking deeply about something. Before the two words were ever commonly used together in language, brown was used to describe something dark and sober while being in a study meant daydreaming. The saying is outdated in today's language.

Originally, the phrase "brown study" meant someone was in a dark melancholy mood.
Originally, the phrase "brown study" meant someone was in a dark melancholy mood.

However, the term "browned off" is related to brown study and is commonly used in Britain today. Like "brown study," browned off also used to be more associated with sadness or depression in its earlier usage, but then the meaning changed. Today, to be browned off means to be annoyed or fed up of someone or something. For example, browned off could be used to describe the attitude of protesters or workers on strike.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the phrase "brown study" in his Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box".
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the phrase "brown study" in his Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box".

The term brown study is used in 19th century British literature fairly frequently. For example, Grace S. Richmond's book A Brown Study, published in 1919, even has a chapter entitled "Brown's Brown Study," which is written about a character named Donald Brown, who realizes, as a result of his brown study, that he cannot afford to waste even one of his "happy hours" worrying as he did not have that many hours in his life of being happy to waste. Richmond's use of this term is closer to its original meaning as unhappiness is mentioned in relation to it and not just deep thought.

Contrastingly, Arthur Conan Doyle in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box published in 1893 uses the later meaning of brown study even though the book was published long before Richmond's. For example, Watson tells the reader "leaning back into my chair, I fell into a brown study." Holmes proves to Watson he could tell what Watson's "train of thought" had been. Holmes surprises Watson by correctly guessing that Watson's "reverie" had been about placing a picture on a wall. Doyle's use of the term as thinking fits in with the later meaning of being deep in thought, yet he also uses the older idea of the word study meaning daydreaming.

"Browned off" is a term that could be used to describe the attitude of protesters or strikers.
"Browned off" is a term that could be used to describe the attitude of protesters or strikers.

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Discussion Comments


I looked this term up because I had come across the poem about Whitesides daughter. I do not think it means simply death. It expands on the strangeness of a child so full of life having apparently sunk into deep and abstracted thought.


I looked up this term "brown study" because I read it in "The Adventure of Cardboard Box". Thank you, Doyle for teaching me a new vocabulary word.


I regularly use this word still, although I was unaware of its roots.


The saying 'brown study' is not obsolete, as a co-worker recently said that I looked like I was in one as I read a text message! Talk about an ironic anachronism.


In the Blue Books 1932 edition (reprint of 1874) of Balzac's "Droll Stories," the author refers to Descartes as devoted to 'brown studies' as opposed

to drinking.


I think it appears both in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" and "The Resident Patient" Sherlock Holmes stories for some reason. Great section showing Sherlock's deduction though!


Twain uses "brown study" in Huck Finn in Chapter 41 when the normally flighty Aunt Sally descends into a more somber mood and considers that she locked the boys in their room the night of Jim's escape.


I looked up "brown study" because the term was used in today's "9 Chickweed Lane" comic strip. Apparently it's not completely obsolete (although I think the last place I saw it was in a Sherlock Holmes story.


What an interesting thing to point out! I haven't thought about that poem since college, and I simply had to look it up. I think that John Crowe Ransom called death a "brown study" in "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" because he wanted to use the lightest possible language to describe her death; he was perfectly clear on the meaning of the expression. In the poem real, tragic things are treated lightly, while make-believe and the child's play is described in exalted language, heightening the sense of unreality felt by those going to the funeral--he's saying 'she was so lively, no one could believe her dead.' He discussed how she "took arms against her shadow" in her child's games, she "harried unto the pond the lazy geese," and one whole stanza discusses how she waved her rod and chased the geese across the sky. On the other hand, out of five stanzas the death is only referred to twice: in the 1st stanza, "her brown study astonishes us all" and in the 5th, final stanza, "we are vexed at her brown study, lying so primly propped." The phrase "primly propped," like "brown study" is hardly appropriate to describe a dead child, but it serves his purpose.


Please keep in mind the poem written by John Crowe Ransom called "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter". a "Brown study" clearly means nothing more than death.


Anon11539 - The quote in this article actually appears in BOTH "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" and "The Resident Patient." Hmmm like a literary form of recycling?

"The Complete Sherlock Holmes" is a book that contains all 56 of Holmes' short stories divided into many sections. In the section "Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes," the short story "The Resident Patient" begins on page 422. In the section "His Last Bow," the short story "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" begins on page 888. The quoted text appears on the first pages of both stories.

It also appears in the 2000 book "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes" on page 31. It is in the story "The Cardboard Box."


The quote attributed in this article to Doyle's story "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" were actually in "The Resident Patient" published in 1893 as part of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Aside from this small thing, nice job describing a brown study!

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