#Idiom: Reading the Riot Act

Just so you’ll know, I wrote this blog post, except for the “Since my last blog post” and “Until my next blog post” a month or more ago when I had no idea there would be an attempted coup at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. There had been rumors of political demonstrations in support of the man who lived in the White House until he moved to Florida on January 20, but I had no idea it would be a day of insurrection against the United States of America.

#Insurrection #FailedCoup
Photo Credit: Little Plant on Unsplash.com

The word “riot” does not adequately describe what happened on January 6, 2021. The word “riot” is far too tame to use in talking about that event. What happened that day outside and inside the US Capitol was not a riot; it was an act of domestic terrorism, an insurrection, and attempted coup incited by the man poorly-holding the office of president of the United States at the time.

Nevertheless, the following gives some of the background for the “Reading the Riot Act” idiom.

Reading the Riot Act

Have you ever wondered where the idiomatic expression, “reading the riot act” and its variations originated? I’ve heard the expression all my life, but I couldn’t have given a definitive answer if asked about its origins. As I’ve said before, the evolution of the English language fascinates me, so this will probably be the first of many blog posts I’ll write about idioms.

Another reason for my interest in idioms is, as a writer of historical fiction, I must be careful not to use a word or phrase in a story set at a time before that particular word or phrase came into usage. For many years, I’ve relied on English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh, to guide me in the use of individual words and their meanings through time. Published by Writers Digest Books in 1997, this is an invaluable resource for writers of historical fiction.

However, I’ve recently come to know the book, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms: The Most Comprehensive Collection of Idiomatic Expressions and Phrases, by Christine Ammer. That collection of idioms and idiomatic expressions has opened my eyes to a whole new aspect of my need to be mindful of the use of words and phrases as I write fiction mostly set in America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I’ve been surprised over and over again by the advent of some familiar idioms. And it’s made me feel old to find so many have only just come into general use during my lifetime. English is an ever-changing and evolving language.

What’s an Idiom or Idiomatic Expression?

An idiom or idiomatic expression is a group of words in usage whose meaning is not self-evident by considering the individual words.

If you’re familiar with the expression, “reading the riot act,” you probably know its meaning. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms: The Most Comprehensive Collection of Idiomatic Expressions and Phrases, by Christine Ammer, to read the riot act means to “warn or reprimand forcefully or severely.

It is thought that the first use of the figurative phrase “read the riot act” in print was in William Bradford’s Letters in 1819. This idiom has been in common use since the early 1800s, but exactly what was the riot act that inspired the expression?

The Riot Act of 1714

There was much unrest in Britain early in the eighteenth century. There were riots in 1710, 1714, and 1715, and the existing laws were inadequate to control the situation. The Riot Act of 1714 gave local officials a proclamation that was part of an Act of Parliament to read to a group of 12 or more people who were illegally assembled.

Here’s the wording of the proclamation that had to be read:

“Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!”

You may recall the reading of Miranda Rights I blogged about on December 21, 2020 — Who said the world would end today? — . In like manner of police officers reading the Miranda Rights to a crime suspect in the United States today, a magistrate, mayor, bailiff, sheriff, or justice of the peace in Britain had to read the Riot Act in an effort to break up an unruly crowd. But that’s where the similarity ends.

The Riot Act of 1714 mandated that the people had an hour to disperse or otherwise be charged with a felony. The punishment for noncompliance was the death penalty! That was also the punishment for anyone interfering with the reading of the proclamation.

In actuality, if an assembled group’s rabble rousing escalated, the authorities didn’t have to wait an hour before making arrests.

What precipitated the Riot Act of 1714 ?

Parliament passed the Riot Act in 1714 – the same year George I became King of Britain – and it took effect in August 1715. The Crown feared that Jacobites (Scottish Roman Catholics – mostly Highlanders — who wanted to return James II of England and VII of Scotland and his descendants to the throne in London) would overthrow the government. In fact, the Jacobites invaded England in 1715 and again in 1745. They were eventually defeated at the Battle of Culloden. If the Jacobites had been successful, Roman Catholicism would have become the official religion throughout Britain. But I digress.

Was the Riot Act of 1714 always effective?

Of course not. I found the following two examples:

(1)        There’s conflicting information regarding the act’s effectiveness in 1839 at the Newport Rising. Some reports say the mayor was able to read the entire proclamation, while other reports say he was shot was attempting to read it from a hotel window; and

(2)        It is thought that the last time a sheriff tried to read the Riot Act was at the Battle of George Square in Glasgow, Scotland. People were protesting for shorter work hours on January 31, 1919. There was a confrontation with police. While the sheriff attempted to read the Riot Act, the piece of paper was grabbed out of his hands by protestors. That was apparently the proverbial last straw for the Riot Act of 1714.

According to the UK Parliament website, The Riot Act of 1714 was repealed in 1973, but it hadn’t been enforced in more than a half century. A version is still on the books in Canada.

Since my last blog post

I checked several weeks ago to see just how many blog posts I’d written. Much to my surprise, today’s post is my 500th. Yes, five hundredth! Thank you to those of you who have stuck with me through thick and thin since my first blog in 2010.

Joseph R. Biden has been sworn in as President of the United States, and Kamala Harris has been sworn in as the first female and the first person of African and Asian descent to the office of Vice President of the United States. I think the world took a collective sigh of relief at 11:49 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on January 20, 2021. I know I did!

I had a bit of a health scare last week, which prompted me to get an appointment on Saturday for a Covid-19 test at a local pharmacy. I’m feeling much better now, so I’m fairly confident that the results will come back “negative.” Better safe than sorry, though. I was pleased with how easy it was to schedule the test. Too bad it’s not as easy and timely to schedule an appointment to receive the vaccine. I believe that’s improving, though, here in the United States.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read or a good book to write.

Find your passion and make time to pursue it in a creative way.

Wear a mask and get the Covid-19 vaccine as soon as you can.

Thank you for dropping by my blog today.

Janet

16 thoughts on “#Idiom: Reading the Riot Act

  1. First and most important, I hope you are well and feeling good Janet. This is a very interesting post and I truly appreciate the information. I found English easy to learn because it is a very idiomatic language and all I had to do was begin to memorise them. I actually learned in Britain and mostly listening and learning Beatles songs. I must say that I really enjoy the reading your narratives. You have a very good style that makes reading your work easy and pleasurable. I look forward to your future works. Take good care and stay safe and well. All the best,
    F

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am fine. I was a little under the weather for several days, but have been fine since Saturday. In fact, I was concerned enough that I arranged for a Covid test on Saturday. The results came back negative on Monday morning. By then, I was feeling okay, but it was nice to get reassured. Thank you. I hope you are well, too. The distribution of the Covid vaccine continues to be confusing. The Biden Administration is having to start from scratch since the Trump Administration left no plan and no account of how many doses of the vaccine had been purchased or where they’d been sent. The stockpile of the vaccine that Trump boasted about proved to be non-existent, like everything else he ever said. I’m confident that President Biden will get all the parts of the process in motion and that things will improve rapidly. At least now we have a President we can believe and trust. It’s like a breath of fresh air even in the midst of a pandemic and so much physical and financial suffering in our country.

    That’s interesting how you learned English by listening to the Beatles. I appreciate your compliments about my writing style more than you know.

    Stay well, my friend, and all the best to you.
    J

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You too, Janet, stay well and stay safe. Here we are taking all the precautions that the government has advised. I am sorry to see that all the bars and restaurants in the city are closed and now our sidewalks look so big, (they used to be filled with the tables of the bars). But we remain vigilant, careful and hopeful. I’ve no idea when I’ll get the vaccine as Europe is moving a little slow, distribution problems, logistics, who knows but in my country of approximately 47 million souls it may take all year…
    I await your next post as I greatly enjoy your writing. All the best Janet,
    F

    Liked by 1 person

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