“Caught Red-Handed” – Phrase Origin

Have you ever been caught doing something you’re not supposed to be doing? If so, then one might say you were “caught red-handed.” This is a common idiom in English, but where does it come from? 

The origin of the phrase “caught red-handed” traces back to 15th-century Scotland when the Scottish Parliament documented a suspect had been “taken reid hand.” It is believed that this was referring to the bloody hands of the criminal as the result of poaching or even murder. 

In the rest of this article, I’ll discuss the origin of the phrase in greater detail, provide famous examples of people getting “caught red-handed,” and discuss the origins of some other common English idioms. If you’re curious about this phrase and others, keep reading! 

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Evolution of the Phrase “Caught Red-Handed”

People use the phrase “caught red-handed” to describe someone discovered in the act of committing a crime or misdeed. Often, the person caught doesn’t actually have red hands, so the idiom can confuse those who haven’t heard it before. This phrase was originally used in Scotland.   

Scottish Acts of Parliament, written in 1432, contain the first written record of the phrase “reid hand” in reference to someone committing a crime. In the following years, various legal documents from Scotland used the phrase “reid hand.”

The red (or reid, as they spelled it then) hand likely referred to actual blood on someone’s hand, either from murder or poaching, two of the most serious crimes someone could be caught committing at the time. 

In Ivanhoe, a 19th-century novel written by Scottish writer, poet, and historian Walter Scott, the phrase morphed from “reid hand” to “red-handed.” In the novel, Scott writes, “I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.” 

After the release of this novel, the phrase “red-handed” was popularized in the English-speaking world. Then, George Alfred Lawrence wrote in his 1857 book Guy Livingstone: “We were caught red-handed.” From there, the phrase increased in popularity and is still used today. 

One myth about the origin of “caught red-handed” comes from Northern Ireland. According to the myth, a boat race was to determine the next king of the province of Ulster, and the first person who touched the shore would become the ruler. One man cut off his hand and threw it to shore so that he could become king. However, this story is widely accepted as only a myth, and few believe it actually has anything to do with the idiom.   

Phrases and words with similar meanings to “caught red-handed” include the following: 

  • Caught in the act 
  • Busted 
  • Caught with your hand in the cookie jar
  • Guilty 
  • Impeachable 
  • At fault  

Famous Examples of People Being “Caught Red-Handed” 

Throughout history, there have been many incidents of people getting caught red-handed. Here are some examples to help you better understand the meaning of the phrase:  

  • Ashlee Simpson gets caught lip-synching. The pop singer Ashlee Simpson was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in 2004, but the performance would start the decline of her career after she was caught red-handed lip-synching. 
  • Lance Armstrong gets caught using performance-enhancing drugs. At one point, Lance Armstrong was the most famous pro road racing cycler in the world, but he was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles when he was caught red-handed using steroids.  
  • Bill Clinton gets caught having an affair. In one of the most famous examples of getting caught red-handed, former President Bill Clinton was caught lying about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. This resulted in his impeachment. 
  • The Nixon administration gets caught for its involvement in the break-in of the DNC headquarters. In another famous political scandal, known as the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon and his administration were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972. 
  • James Frey gets exposed for fabricating his memoir A Million Little Pieces. James Frey was meant to be the next big thing in the literary world after his memoir about drug addiction was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and became a bestseller. However, an investigation caught him red-handed for lying about the majority of the contents in the book. 
  • Jeffrey Dahmer’s heinous crimes are exposed. Jeffrey Dahmer murdered seventeen people from 1978 to 1991, and this was discovered when his last victim punched him in the face, escaped, and got to the police. The police followed the man back to Dahmer’s apartment, where they discovered pictures of his victims and severed heads in the freezer. Dahmer was caught red-handed and sentenced to sixteen life terms in prison.
  • Joel Rifkin is caught while driving a truck with no license plates. Joel Rifkin is an American serial killer who murdered seventeen women between 1989 and 1993. He was caught red-handed when police chased him for driving without license plates and noticed a foul odor coming from the car. His last victim’s body was discovered in the car, and Rifkin was sentenced to 203 years in prison.  

Getting caught red-handed can be as small as getting discovered with your hand in the cookie jar just before dinner, or it can be a massive scandal or crime bust like the examples above. 

Atlanta and the Phrase “Caught Red-Handed” 

Questions about the phrase “caught red-handed” and its origins arose after a 2018 episode of the popular FX show Atlanta. In the episode “Money Bag Shawty,” Ern, who is a Black man portrayed by Donald Glover, attempts to pay for a movie with a $100 bill, but the white clerk refuses to accept the bill from him. However, shortly afterward, she allows a white man to pay with a $100 bill, even though she told Ern it was against the theater’s policy.

Frustrated, Ern uses the phrase “caught-red handed,” to tell his friend Van (Zazie Beetz) the story and complain about the racist implications involved with a white clerk accepting a $100 bill from a white man but not a Black man. 

After he says this phrase, Van tells him that the expression is racist and originated in the United States about Native American thieves, as Native Americans were called “redskins” as a derogatory epithet. For a moment, Ern believes he ironically used a racist phrase to describe racist behavior. 

In the show, Ern and Van reflect on this for a short while. But they ultimately go to their movie and the phrase isn’t mentioned again. However, the scene caused many viewers to question the phrase and other colloquial expressions. 

Even though many English idioms do have offensive undertones and origins, “caught red-handed” is not one of them, and the phrase has nothing to do with Native Americans. 

Phrases With Offensive Origins 

In Atlanta, Ern and Van discuss the possibility that the phrase “caught red-handed” has an offensive origin. While this specific phrase doesn’t, many idioms in the English language do. The following table outlines these phrases, their meanings, and their origin: 

PhraseMeaning Origin 
“Peanut gallery” This phrase references members of an audience who heckle or criticize the performer, often for small or insignificant reasons. During the popularity of Vaudeville shows, there was always a section of Vaudeville theaters that had the worst seats and the cheapest tickets. Usually, this is where Black people sat because it was all they could afford. This section of the theater was called the “peanut gallery.” 
“I got gypped” If someone says they were “gypped” by someone, this indicates that they were somehow betrayed or cheated by someone else. “Gypsy” is a slur for the Romani, which is an ethnic group of travelers who made money selling goods. Some people didn’t like the Romani because of their ethnicity and began spreading the rumor that they were swindlers and started calling them “gypsies.” “Gyp” is a shortened version of the word “gypsy.”
“Sold down the river” Someone who has been “sold down the river” has been betrayed by someone else who had something to gain from their downfall. During slavery in the United States, disobedient slaves were sold to plantations in the South, primarily Mississippi, as punishment. These slaves were literally “sold down the river,” in this case, the Mississippi River. 
“No can do” This phrase simply means that someone can’t do a task or action that is asked of them. “No can do” is grammatically incorrect, broken English. The phrase began as a way for white settlers to mock Chinese English. Some also believe the phrase was used to mock the way Native Americans spoke English. 
“Cat got your tongue” This phrase is used to describe someone who is at a loss for words. In the past, the English Navy used “Cat-o’-nine-tails” whips to punish victims. The pain caused by this powerful whip was often so overwhelming that the victim could no longer speak.
“Tipping point” The “tipping point” in a situation is the point where a change is unavoidable. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common for white families to move out of a neighborhood if they determined that too many African Americans lived there. “The tipping point” referred to the moment when these white families made the decision to move because of their racist beliefs and discomfort around African Americans. 
“Hip hip, hooray!” This is a congratulatory cheer. The “hip hip” part of this phrase is thought to originate from the “Hep-hep riots” in Germany. “Hep hep” was a rallying cry used to attack Jewish people. 

Every phrase and idiom in the English language had to come from somewhere; unfortunately, many have offensive origins. 

Conclusion 

There has been some confusion about the origin of the phrase “caught red-handed,” but the phrase originally came from Scotland in the 15th century. At that time, it referred to literal blood on the hands of someone committing a crime. Nowadays, it can refer to any guilty person caught in the act of wrongdoing, even if their hands are not actually red. 

Sources 

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