Wednesday, April 29, 2015
A caller asked about the phrase, “caught red-handed.” Currently, it means to be caught in the very act of committing a crime. Given the circumstances, there is no possibility of pleading innocent.
It seems to have arisen in Scotland somewhere around the 15th century. Originally, it meant to be caught with blood on one’s hands. This could happen while poaching — a very serious offense, especially on royal property—or while committing a murder. To be caught with the victim’s blood still on your murderous hands would be a slam dunk for the prosecutor.
Here’s a quote from Sir George Mackenzie's A discourse upon the laws and customs of Scotland in matters criminal, 1674: "If he be not taken red-hand the sheriff cannot proceed against him."
It also shows up in Spenser’s Faerie Queene II. iii. 47: “He might, for memory of that daye's ruth, Be called Ruddymaine [i.e. red-handed].
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