This morning I asked a friend how he felt about the phrase "to read the riot act". I asked because apparently David Cameron has being reading it out again and again lately to show people how annoyed he is about MPs' expenses. His poor throat. (I hope he doesn't try to claim for Strepsils.)
I only heard the phrase for the first time in the past year and am still forming a view. I think I'm quite a fan. It's theatrical, archaic and has a quirky ring, like "bang to rights", which I recently discovered means the opposite of what I'd always thought. For years I've been unwittingly surrendering all-but-clinched arguments with cheerful remarks like, "so, if you look closely, you can see my actions were clearly bang to rights! Agreed?" I'm now told it means 'a fair cop', not 'within one's rights'. I tell myself it's an easy mistake to make, but I think that's only true if you're under the age of eight or Paris Hilton.
But anyway, we agree. "To read the riot act" is a trusty, stylish little phrase. But on the other hand, it doesn't really make sense.
The phrase is employed to describe a hearty bollocking. Yet to me, the recital of a statute isn't really something that can be done with much fist-shaking, vessel-popping or wall-thumping. Surely "reading the riot act" is more the sort of thing you do to lull a child to sleep? Have you ever to tried to read an Act of Parliament? DO NOT. You will lose three weeks of your life and emerge socially scarred, forever interrupting conversations to request the definition of terms or ask that the past two minutes' discussion be removed to an appendix. It's like having dinner with a thousand lawyers (brrr...)
So, as I think they say on Malcolm in the Middle, what gives? Well, my friend referred me to to phrases.org.uk, which both handily answered my query and proved that we know how to party on a Wednesday afternoon.
"To read the riot act" originates from 18th century England. Magistrates who had espied an unruly mob congregating on the village green used to leap out of bed with their nightcaps and candlesticks, rush across the square, recite the entire Riot Act of 1714 and give the crowd an hour to disperse. And when I say crowd, I mean group of twelve or more. So basically any sports match, play or birthday party. And when I say an hour to disperse, I mean before throwing the group in jail for three years. It had better have been a HELL of a party...
Now. The original figurative usage of the phrase meant to reprimand rowdy characters, and warn them to stop behaving badly. This follows phrase's origin quite literally. But unless Cameron is being deliberately rendered as a frightened judge wearing pyjamas and a moustache-hammock, something is amiss. This is not the sort of reading he has being giving.
So it seems to me that the emphasis and connotations of 'riot' in "to read the riot act" is shifting from the reprimandee, who was read the Riot Act to dissuade him from losing both his rag and his liberty, to the reprimander, who is just sort of, you know, so angry he's like a one-man riot.
And that kind of linguistic corruption - which according to Wikipedia might be called an autoantonym - is VERY interesting!
Two more similar tit-bits, but thankfully with much less exposition, are that (1) 'wan', which means 'pale' in today's parlance, used to mean 'dark' in Middle English, and (2) conversely but entirely coincidentally, 'dark' used to mean 'light.' So there.