#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

#ColonialAmerica: What’s a High and Dry?

If you look up “high and dry” in the dictionary, you’re likely to find a definition something like this:  being out of reach of the current or tide; being in a helpless position. My dictionary only identifies “high and dry” as an adjective that first came into common use in 1786. It’s first known use was in 1727.

You can find this and additional information about that use of “high and dry” by going to https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/high%20and%20dry. (I hope that’s clickable. I’m having some problems posting this today.)


That’s not the “high and dry” I’m talking about in today’s blog post.

My introduction to the noun “high and dry” came from a docent at the Hezekiah Alexander House in Charlotte, North Carolina. I learned that it was the name of an enclosed tiny cupboard on the mantle of a fireplace. If memory serves me correctly from the tour I took 15 or more years ago, that particular high and dry was approximately eight inches wide and perhaps ten inches tall. It was made of wood and had a secure door. It was where the Alexander family would have kept their cone of sugar in the 1700s.

In the backcountry of the Carolinas, sugar was a precious commodity. In order to be of use, it had to be kept dry. It stands to reason, that a homemaker who had spent precious family resources to purchase a cone of sugar would have taken measures to keep the sugar protected from moisture and the high humidity associated with The South.

One of my handiest reference books as a writer of historical fiction is English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh. It has saved me more than once when I was going to use a word in a short story or my work-in-progress novel, only to find out from Mr. Brohaugh’s book that the word I wanted to use was not yet in use in the time period of my story or novel.

Mr. Brohaugh’s book says the “high and dry” was in use as a noun “by 1825.” I had hoped for proof of its use in the 1700s, but seeing it in the Hezekiah Alexander House is proof enough for me. I wish I had a photo of the Alexanders’ high and dry to illustrate my blog post today.


An illustrative blog by Stephanie Ann Farra:  World Turn’d Upside Down

I was pleased to find the following blog post from 2013 that illustrates the form of sugar that was used in colonial America:  https://www.worldturndupsidedown.com/2013/05/how-to-make-colonial-era-sugar-cone-or.html. If you aren’t familiar with a cone of sugar, please look at the photographs Ms. Farra included in her blog post.

Just for fun, I decided last Wednesday to follow Ms. Farra’s instructions and try to make my own sugar cone. How did that go? Here’s a picture of my sugar cone. With the assistance of gravity for several hours and hot water, the cone was eventually released from the vase that served as my mold. I now have more of an appreciation for the making of sugar cones in colonial times.

Sugar cone made with water, sugar, and a vase as a mold.
My attempt at making a sugar cone.

Inheriting the Trade:  A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, by Thomas Norman DeWolf

While writing this blog post, I was reminded of a memoir I read in 2008 (yes, I’ve kept a list of the books I’ve read since 1993) that is related to today’s topic about sugar. Inheriting the Trade:  A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, by Thomas Norman DeWolf, is an eye-opening book about how the trading of slaves, sugar, and rum were intimately entangled in colonial America – the largest such family dynasty being in Rhode Island. I highly recommend this book to anyone who believes only Southerners were guilty of benefiting from the slave trade.

Quoting from the book jacket:  “In 2001, at forty-seven, Thomas DeWolf was astounded to discover that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in American history, responsible for transporting at least 10,000 Africans to the Americas. His infamous ancestor, U.S. senator James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island, curried favor with President Jefferson to continue in the trade after it was outlawed. When James DeWolf died in 1837, he was the second-richest man in America.”

In researching his family’s history, Thomas Norman DeWolf and nine of his relatives retraced the steps of their ancestors, going to Ghana, Cuba, and New England. I salute their honesty in revealing to us their family history. It puts a face on an important part of United States history that has been swept under the rug for far too long.


What was left out of my history textbooks?

When I was in school, I wasn’t taught much about the slave trade in colonial and early America. I grew up believing that The South bore all the blame for slavery in America. That’s how the history books of the day were written.

My textbooks did not tell me that Africans were enslaved in the northern states at all, much less for more than 200 years. They did not tell me that the majority of slave trading in America was done by people from the northern states.

It has only been in my adult years that I’ve learned more of the truth. It troubles me that I wasn’t taught the whole truth as an elementary and high school student. It troubles me even more that so little time is now allotted to the study of American history in the public schools of North Carolina that today’s students will graduate knowing even less of our nation’s history than I did. I hope conditions are different in the state in which you live.


Since my last blog post

When I select a topic for a blog post, I don’t necessarily know where it will take me. In today’s post, I set out to define a high and dry. Little did I know it would lead me into a reference to the slave/sugar/rum trade in America. The three are interwoven, though, and one cannot truly understand the one while ignoring the others.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. Tackling my to-be-read list, I’m listening to The Broker, by John Grisham.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have quality creative time.

Thank you for reading my blog post. You have many things vying for your attention and time, so I appreciate the fact that you took time to read my blog today. I hope you’ll visit it every week to see what I’m up to.


Let’s continue the conversation

I would love to know what any of my blog readers know about the “high and dry” as I’m writing about it today as a noun. Have you seen such a little cupboard as you’ve toured other colonial homes? Please share anything you’ve seen, read, or heard about this tiny piece of cabinetry.

Janet