To read someone the riot
act is to berate that person for unwanted behavior and to threaten him or her with
consequences if the behavior doesn’t cease.
The fact is, there was
an actual Riot Act, and it was passed into law in Great Britain in 1715. In
case you want to read it to someone, here it is:
Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all
persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to
depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains
contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing
tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!
The idea was that if
someone in an official capacity came across agitators in a party of twelve or
more, the Riot Act would be read. If they did not disperse within the next 60
minutes, they could be arrested and charged with a capital crime.
The specific reason for
the Act was the fear of the new Hanoverian regime that rebellious Jacobite forces
would overturn them and restore the old order. It was taken quite seriously, as
this quote from Charles James’ A new and enlarged military dictionary of 1802,
indicates: “Soldiers are not to fire on rioters until the riot act has been
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