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Caught red-handed

Q From David Perry, South Africa: Do you know the origin of the phrase caught red-handed?

A We must thank (or conceivably blame) the famous Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott for having popularised this term, which was until his time purely a Scots expression. He used it first in his novel Ivanhoe of 1819: “I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag”. Before then it was usually written as red-hand or redhand as in “if he be taken redhand”. It dates back to the fifteenth century.

The meaning was then the same as now. Somebody taken redhand was either in the act of committing a crime or with clear evidence of it about him. The original reference was to literal red hands, those of a murderer stained with the blood of his victim. But it soon became broadened to refer figuratively to other crimes, for example to a thief being caught carrying stolen items.

The term has no connection with a red hand in heraldry, such as the famous Red Hand of Ulster, which derives from the ancient device of the O’Neills, once high kings of Ireland.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Jun. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 9 June 2007.