World Wide Words logo

Caught red-handed

Q From David Perry, South Africa: Do you know the origin of the phrase caught red-handed?

A We must thank (or conceivably blame) the famous Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott for having popularised this term, which was until his time purely a Scots expression. He used it first in his novel Ivanhoe of 1819: “I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag”. Before then it was usually written as red-hand or redhand as in “if he be taken redhand”. It dates back to the fifteenth century.

The meaning was then the same as now. Somebody taken redhand was either in the act of committing a crime or with clear evidence of it about him. The original reference was to literal red hands, those of a murderer stained with the blood of his victim. But it soon became broadened to refer figuratively to other crimes, for example to a thief being caught carrying stolen items.

The term has no connection with a red hand in heraldry, such as the famous Red Hand of Ulster, which derives from the ancient device of the O’Neills, once high kings of Ireland.

Page created 9 Jun. 2007

Support World Wide Words and keep this site alive.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.


Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you.

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon USA Buy from Amazon Canada Kaufen Sie bei Amazon Deutschland

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-cau1.htm
Last modified: 9 June 2007.