Way With Words: Caught Red-Handed
Whether referencing one caught committing a criminal act or just taking cookies out of the cookie jar, the phrase ‘caught red handed’ has held down a home in modern language for centuries now.
The phrase finds its origins in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I in 1432, which described a guilty a poacher as one found with the blood a dead animal on his hands.
There didn’t seem to be much regard for the obvious: even if a poacher was caught with the animal, in the absence of bloody hands there was no legitimate crime.
At that time the term used was “red-hand,” which appeared in many legal proceedings throughout the 15th century and later.
Sir George Mackenzie may have popularized the form “red-handed” in his novel “Ivanhoe,” widely spreading the idiom to a variety of audiences.
“I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag,” reads an excerpt from the book.
The full term “caught red-handed” was first put in print in George Alfred Lawrence's 1857 work “Guy Livingstone” or “Thorough.”
“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,'" quoted from www.todayifoundout.com.
Nowadays, the literal meaning of “caught red-handed” only rarely applies to anyone, save for perhaps cases of murder, or when red ink is spilled, but the figurative will probably stick around for a while. Even if no one remembers the 15th century poaching laws.
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