We've all heard the expression 'I really read them the riot act'. I'm not sure if the phrase was much more common 40 years ago, or if it's just a phrase that's addressed to children far more often than it's addressed to adults .... but whatever the reason, I don't hear that phrase used much anymore.
Once upon a time I thought it meant that the person using the phrase was threatening to cause a riot if the offending person didn't change their behavior. But I knew that there was a law in the U.S. against inciting a riot, so my definition didn't really work. Over time, I came to understand that the phrase meant that someone had done something they weren't supposed to do (or had failed to do something that they were supposed to do), and they'd gotten in trouble for it. But even so, when I heard the phrase the other day and noted that there was no likelihood of a riot - either by the person being chastised, or the person using the phrase, I started wondering if there really was a riot act.
Turns out that The Riot Act was an act of Parliament from 1715. The full title was "an act for preventing tumults or riotous" something or other, something or other. Sorry, but the full title is so long, I got bored before I got to the end. So let's just call it the Riot Act.
And if you think back to what England must have been like back then, you'll realize that it was a time of unrest and rebellion. England was involved in fights with Spain and France and some other countries, the colonies in American weren't behaving, and to top it off, when the Stuart monarchy came to an end and the British found themselves stuck with a king who didn't even speak English. Generally speaking, the authorities were in a bad mood.
When I realized this historical background to the Riot Act, I feared the worst, but it turned out that it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. You see, the Act said that if there was a gathering of twelve or more people and the authorities declared them to be 'unlawfully assembled', then the local sheriff could - literally - read the Act out loud, declare the assemblage to be unlawful, and give the people an hour to disperse.
On the one hand, twelve people seems awfully unreasonable, but on the other hand, an hour is a long time. I mean - if I'm being disruptive and someone gives me an hour, I'm the type who will probably continue to be disruptive for another 50 or 55 minutes, and then go away. Seem to me that the hour is a pretty generous warning. But then I discovered that if people failed to disperse, they were arrested, and if someone was injured or killed, the authorities weren't held responsible.
Hmmm.. maybe I'd better back up my disruptive period and stop after 45 minutes, or perhaps 40 minutes.
And it turns out that this was one of the problems. Determining exactly when the Act had been read. Did you count from the beginning of the reading, or the end? What if someone wasn't around for the reading, but they joined the mob fifteen minutes later? And if I though the title of the Act was boring, that was nothing compared to the act itself. What if someone died of boredom while the Act was being read? (ok, that probably never happened... but it could have.) And what if the person reading, didn't get to the end? That really did happen, when someone tore the paper out of the hands of the official who was reading it. Hmm, that raises another problem. If there's an angry mob out there, I certainly don't want to be the person who has to stand up in front of them and tell them they have to stop.
In any event, England repealed The Riot Act nearly fifty years ago, and now 'reading the riot act' simply means to criticize someone harshly. It no longer matters how many people are involved, there's no deadline, and there's no threat of injury or imprisonment. Gee, after all that history, it's almost disappointingly meaningless.
Fortunately, I have a solution for being disappointed.. and I hear the kettle whistling now. Time for tea.