When an Ohio woman’s wallet was stolen in 2006, she didn’t think she would see her missing driver’s license again.
Two weeks later as the woman was tending bar, she asked a female customer for her I.D. — and was presented her own stolen license. The thief was, as they say, “caught red-handed,” in a moment that police later said had odds that “defy calculation.”
Coincidence aside, there are plenty of examples of people being caught red-handed in real life and in fiction. But where does the phrase caught red-handed come from? Turns out, its roots are steeped in both blood and history.
Ye Olde Origins of ‘Red-Handed’
The first use of the phrase “red-handed” originated in 15th century Scotland and, at the time, referred to someone literally having blood on their hands after committing a crime.
In 1432, a record of “The Scottish Acts of Parliament of James 1” includes a reference to someone having a “red hand” as a consequence of their wrongdoing — in this case, most likely poaching an animal from forbidden hunting grounds:
That the offender be taken reid hand, may be persewed, and put to the knowledge of ane Assise, befoir the Barron or Landeslord of the land or ground, quhidder the offender be his tennent, unto quhom the wrang is done or not …
While these outdated spellings may take some effort to wade through, this early evidence of using “reid hand” became part-and-parcel of Scotland’s legal proceedings. In time, referring to someone being “red hand” was equal to saying that someone was caught in the act of committing a crime, including variations on the phrase such as “apprehended redhand” or “taken with redhand.”
Historians believe the phrase evolved from “red hand” to “red-handed” as it was bandied about in colloquial conversations of the era, so much so that the term was eventually immortalized in the literary canon.
In 1820, Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” the phrase appears thusly:
I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.
An Idiom for The Ages
The phrase “caught red-handed” would actually make very little sense if it were broken into its individual words. This is because “caught red-handed” is an idiom, a phrase that — when taken as a whole — is, to coin another idiom, more than the sum of its parts.
Idioms are, at their core, shortcuts. An idiom represents a larger meaning that most people (usually) understand. For example, a simple phrase like “close, but no cigar” can be an efficient substitution for what would otherwise be a lengthy explanation. In short, idioms make it easy to explain a more complicated concept.
Take the following idioms, for example:
- Kill two birds with one stone (meaning: completing two tasks at once)
- Back to the drawing board (meaning: a plan that doesn’t work and requires you to start over)
- Bite the bullet (meaning: to do something, no matter how unpleasant)
- Steal someone’s thunder (meaning: taking credit for something someone else accomplished or stealing the spotlight)
The Evolution of ‘Caught Red-Handed’
Just like idioms today — such as “going viral” — permeate layers of society, so too did “red-hand.” The phrase spread throughout the English-speaking world in the 1800s, where it picked up its modern variation: caught red-handed.
One of the earliest records of the still-in-circulation phrase “caught red-handed” appeared in the 1857 novel “Guy Livingstone“ by George Alfred Lawrence:
My companion picked up the object; and we had just time to make out that it was a bell-handle and name-plate, when the pursuers came up— six or seven “peelers” and specials, with a ruck of men and boys. We were collared on the instant. The fact of the property being found in our possession constituted a ‘flagrans delictum’ — we were caught red-handed.
Today, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, being caught “red-handed” means to “discover someone while they are doing something bad or illegal.” And, just as it did in Ye Olde Scotland, the phrase also has come to mean catching someone in the process — even leading up to doing the bad or illegal thing — not just the bad or illegal thing itself.
Now That’s Interesting
Some idioms are widely understood by many regions of the world, while others are limited to a regional understanding. For example, some New Yorkers say “it’s mad brick“ to signal that is really cold outside, but this phrase might cause confusion in other regions of the U.S.
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Read more on Cultures: Did The Library of Alexandria Really Exist?
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