What Is The Origin Of The Phrase Caught Red-Handed?

It's a phrase we have probably all used at one time or another, but do you know where it came from? Today, we use the term "caught red-handed" to mean: caught while doing something wrong. Like, for instance, when the police arrive just as someone is robbing a bank, or when your sister spots you sneaking chocolate out of her stocking.

One popular myth about the phrase says that the term originated in Ulster, a Northern Irish province (via Thrillist). According to this myth, a boat race was held with rules stipulating that the first racer to touch the opposite shore would become the next king. One competitor was so determined to win that he actually cut off his hand — which was then surely very bloody and red — and threw it on the shore to clinch victory. But, though this myth is fascinating, it doesn't have any connection to the phrase caught red-handed. 

The possible origins of the phrase have even been discussed in pop culture. In an episode of "Atlanta," called "Money Bag Shawty," several characters wonder whether the phrase has racist origins, as Yahoo! notes. However, the episode doesn't dig deeply into whether or not this is true.

So, where does the idiom actually come from?

The phrase originated in Scotland

Most evidence suggests that the term red-handed was first used in Scotland, according to Mental Floss. The very first documented use of the phrase pops up in 1432 in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I, in which it was written, "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."

The idiom likely originated from criminals having blood on their hands after they had committed violent crimes or were involved in illegal poaching. When caught in the act, these criminals would have literally had red hands which served as evidence of their crimes. In the times before DNA testing and surveillance cameras, this evidence could have been some of the most solid proof available to the authorities.

How the phrase evolved over time

The term continued to evolve over centuries. First, the spelling of the phrase changed from "reid hand" to red-hand. One such use of the updated spelling can be found in a 1674 document by Sir George Mackenzie, "A discourse upon the laws and customs of Scotland in matters criminal." In the document, Mackenzie wrote, "If he be not taken red-hand the sheriff cannot proceed against him," (via The Phrase Finder).

Mental Floss adds, in the early 1800s the phrase evolved to red-handed. This updated phrase was found in Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" from 1819, where he wrote, "I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag," (via The Phrase Finder). After the phrase was used in Scott's popular work, it spread into wider usage, and in 1857, the book "Guy Livingstone," by George Alfred Lawrence, finally originated the phrase we know and use today: caught red-handed. Lawrence wrote then, "The fact of the property being found in our possession constituted a 'flagrans delictum' — we were caught 'red-handed.'"