Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Red-Handed

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 27, 2010

This expression means an individual has been caught in the act of committing a crime. Its original meaning is to be caught after having stabbed someone, where the perpetrator still has blood on his or her hands.

“Red-handed” dates back to the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I in 1432 and is referred to at that time as “red-hand.”   “Red-hand” appears in print many times in Scottish legal proceedings from that point on. 

Sir George Mackenzie’s essay entitled A Discourse Upon The Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal which was published in 1674 states:

If he be not taken red-hand, the sheriff cannot proceed against him.”

In Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe published in 1819, the shift from “red-hand” to “red-handed” was made:

I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.”

You may want to remember this word the next time you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

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