What Does It Mean to ‘Read the Riot Act’?
Has anyone ever read you the riot act? If so, you were likely misbehaving.
To read the riot act means to put someone on notice that their behavior is unacceptable. Antisocial. Just plain wrong!
When you were a kid, your mom probably read you the riot act many times. Maybe when you sat on the couch with muddy clothes. Or showed up at 4:00 a.m. when you had a midnight curfew.
But is there an actual Riot Act? And does it have to be read aloud?
Yes and yes.
“The Riot Act” is shorthand for a long law passed by the British Parliament in 1714. Its official name is “An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters.” Whew!
The law was passed at a time of political unrest in England. George I, of the House of Hanover, ruled the land. Yet he feared rebellion from “the Old Pretender”—the exiled James III, of the House of Stuart.
James’ supporters, in the words of the law, had held “many rebellious riots and tumults … in divers parts of this kingdom, to the disturbance of the publick peace, and the endangering of his Majesty’s person and government.”
George didn’t care for that. So he encouraged Parliament to pass the Riot Act. The act allowed local officials to declare any gathering of more than 12 people “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled.”
If the official made this proclamation loudly, near the rioters, the rioters had one hour to disperse—under penalty of death.
The Riot Act continued to be read in England until 1967, when it was repealed. Its use in the sense of “to give a stern warning” continues today, long after the royals of Hanover and Stuart lay underground.
But if you want to stop someone’s bad behavior, you could still stand in front of them and say this:
Our Sovereign Lady the Queen 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 Queen!
Who knows? Reading them the riot act just might work.
So, that’s your tidbit for today. To read the riot act means to warn or reprimand soundly.
Ammer, Christine. Read the Riot Act. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.