Where Did the Phrase “Caught Red Handed” Come From?

(Last Updated On: September 25, 2018)

Where Did the Phrase “Caught Red Handed” Come From?
The English language originated from a variety of different dialects that were brought to Britain in the mid 5th to 7th centuries. It most commonly derives from the Frisian peoples, who migrated from the present area of northwest Germany, west Denmark, and the Netherlands. The arrival of this language replaced Celtic languages that had dominated previously.

Throughout time, the English language has evolved and adapted phrases, grammar, spelling, and words from a variety of different languages, making it an incredibly difficult and confusing language to learn. And if things weren’t already tough enough, you also have to consider the many sayings, idioms, and expressions that often don’t make a ton of sense.

Take the term “caught red handed.” What does that even mean?

What Does “Caught Red Handed” Mean?

To be caught red handed means that a person (or persons) is caught in the act of doing something wrong. Maybe a criminal robs a bank but is caught right as they walk out the door. Or maybe a parent walks into the kitchen to see their child eating candy when they were specifically told not to. In both of these instances, the individuals were caught red handed. A related, similar phrase would be “caught in the act.”

Far more often than not, people who are “caught red handed” don’t actually have red hands, which is why this idiom can be a little confusing. So, why are the hands red? Where did the phrase “caught red handed” come from?

Where Did the Phrase “Caught Red Handed” Come From?

The term was originally used in 15th century Scotland. At the time, the phrase was “red hand” or “redhand,” and referred to people getting caught having blood on their hands after committing a murder or poaching animals. This, of course, is a very literal application of the term.

There are numerous legal documents that have the phrase recorded in them, with the first instance coming from the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I. In the vast majority of these documents, a suspect was caught in the act of committing a crime.

It is well accepted that the phrase was altered from “red hand” to “red handed” in the early 19th century by Sir Walter Scott in his work Ivanhoe. Scott was a Scottish historian, historical novelist, playwright, and poet. He was also a legal administrator, judge, and advocate, so he would have had experience with the phrase in a professional context. The use of the phrase in Scott’s novel popularized it among the masses and saw it used outside of a legal context (although it was still probably used in a legal context as well).

The entire phrase “caught red handed” was first documented as being used in 1857 in the book Guy Livingstone, which was written by George Alfred Lawrence. From there, it has become a common and well-known phrase in the English language that is still used today.

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