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I just looked up the translation of the German expression jemanden zur Rede stellen. The one translation for that expression I found was to take someone to task.

I use the German expression to describe a situation where you ask someone to justify himself/herself. It usually (but not necessarily) involves a feeling of stress to the person who is asked, because he/she has to justify a decision or action. When this expression is used, it often involves an uncomfortable atmosphere.

The confusion stems from the English expression, which in my opinion would literally mean that I take someone and assign to him a task. While in German it is more like you make someone talk, in English it seems to mean to make someone do a task.

Where does that expression come from?

When can it be used the way I described it for German? I.e. to ask someone questions/make someone justify himself/herself.

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In English, to take someone to task means to reprimand them, that is, to criticize their failure of responsibility, which seems fairly close to the German usage, at least in the discomfort to the reprimanded party. But it doesn't necessarily contain the sense of asking for justification. For that you have to demand an explanation.

When you want to make somebody do something, you assign or give a task to him.

"Take" has a general meaning of seize or hold, and the OED records an old usage from 1250 of "take someone" meaning the modern locution of "take someone to task." Three hundred years later, "take someone to task" had the meaning of assign someone a task, but some time after the 1650s, this usage become obsolete, superseded by the old ancient meaning of reprimand.

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Actually, the meaning is less about 'take' and more about 'task'. According to Online Etymology Dictionary, "task" in this sense is closer to an old meaning of "tax". http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=task

So, "take someone to task" is more comparable to the expression:

("If you dance to the music, you have to) 'pay the piper'."

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  • If I understand correctly, you're implying that to "take someone to task" is to "give someone the payment they have earned"? This doesn't match with my understanding of "take someone to task" at all. – AndyT Jul 20 '15 at 13:50
  • Not 'giving payment for what is earned', but facing the consequences of one's actions. – Oldbag Jul 20 '15 at 15:25
  • Thanks for the clarification. Although that doesn't match with my understanding either. As per deadrat's answer, and this OED link I understand it to mean "reprimand or criticize someone severely for a fault or mistake". – AndyT Jul 20 '15 at 15:31
  • They are similar in situation, i.e., having to deal with the fallout of a mistake or indulgence. – Oldbag Jul 20 '15 at 15:55

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