Caught Red-Handed

I heard this phrase this afternoon, and thought, Well, there’s no great mystery with this one. Red-handed refers to having blood on one’s hands from an act of murder or some other violence. No complicated, confusing web of etymology here.

But then I thought, I always think that, and then I look something up and there’s a fascinating, unexpected origin of the expression that I’ll be excited to share with you, dear reader.

But of course that’s not the case here. Red-handed means exactly what you think it means. The expression was first used with this meaning in 15th-century Scottish law. The first use of taken red-handed to refer to someone caught in the middle of committing a crime was in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe in 1819.

Another phrase with the same meaning is in flagrante delicto, which literally means in blazing offence, or while the offence is burning. This can also of course refer to being caught in a sexual act.

Thinking about expressions about crime, and Scotland, naturally made me think of the expression to get away scot-free. It’s pretty natural to assume that the scot part refers to Scotland, but that’s actually not the case at all. Scot in this case comes from Scandinavian languages, and is actually directly related to the noun shot (as in related to shoot). Before the 16th century, the expression was actually shot-free, with shot in this case actually meaning tax. In the 16th century, the expression became scot-free, and referred to not having to pay a fee or tax. Over time, the meaning became more general, and referred to not having to face a consequence for one’s transgression.

So if you’ve been blaming the Scots for escaping punishment all this time, please stop doing so, and instead thank them for giving us the expression to be caught red-handed!

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