Where did ‘caught red-handed’ originate?

The history of the idiom ‘caught red-handed’.

Red painted hand on a white background caught red handed

If you’ve ever been caught in the act of stealing, lying or performing any other misdemeanour, you’ll know that profoundly shameful feeling of being caught red-handed.

Most etymologists agree that the expression ‘caught red-handed’ has its origins in 15th century Scotland, where it was first used, unsurprisingly, to refer to people who had been caught with blood on their hands from murdering or poaching. Later, it became commonly used for almost any criminal act, small or large.

The first documented mention of ‘red hand’ can be found in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I, written in 1432:

“That the offender be taken reid hand, may be persewed, and put to the knawledge of ane Assise, befoir the Barron or Landeslord of the land or ground, quhidder the offender be his tennent, unto quhom the wrang is done or not”

Sir Walter Scott has been attributed with helping the phrase transition from ‘red hand’ to ‘red-handed,’ when he used it in this historical novel Ivanhoe, first published in 1820. This helped to popularise the expression for everyday use.

“I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.”

Think that’s all there is to this story? There’s a second, albeit less accepted, theory about the origins of ‘caught red-handed’ that’s also worth mentioning, simply because it’s a good story.

The Red Hand has long been a cultural and heraldic symbol of Ulster (the northern Irish province), and still features prominently in the centre of the Ulster flag. As part of this theory, ‘caught red-handed’ may have started when a contestant in a boat race cut off this hand and threw it to the shore ahead of his rivals to secure his winning place. Sounds like a drastic measure to win a boat race? And doesn’t it make a little more sense when you find out that the winner was to become the province’s ruler.

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