Submitted by elisemodgins  •  October 26, 2005

Riot act

What does it mean when someone states that they were “read the riot act” or that THEY read someone else “the riot act”? Is there such a thing as a Riot Act. I haven’t been able to locate information on this.

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From: http://www.wordorigins.org/

"Britain's Riot Act of 1715 stated that when 12 or more people were engaged in a riot, any magistrates on hand could command them to disperse. Anyone not obeying the command could be arrested for a felony. So reading the Riot Act is a public warning of dire consequences if certain behavior is to continue. The act was superseded by the Public Order Act of 1986."

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Wow, thanks! Another dead metaphor to add to my collection.

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I'll read you the Public Order Act.

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Thanks for clearing that bad bit of business up nicely. Now, all of you disperse or it's off with your heads!

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This figure of speech is still fairly common. If someone says I "read him the riot act", it usually means that I spent a long time scolding him.

When you did that dumb thing when you were 16 and you're parents spent the next hour lecturing you on why it was dumb, they were "reading you the riot act".

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In an abusive situation, one has the right to read the riot act. I have looked in law books at the local library and book stores and have yet to find this "reading" please advise. I would like the version the police use for one unruly destructable individual, not a group of 12 which is all I seem to find on the internt... I simply would like a copy of this act.

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Hmm, Ms. LeGrand, if the actual origin of the expression is a three hundred year old law, then why would you expect to find a current law on the books called "The Riot Act"? Why would you expect that the police use any version for any reason?

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My 16 year old son came home from his camp counselor job and asked me, "Mom, what is the riot act?"
I replied, "I don't know for sure, but it was probablly a law that was passed against groups congregating, in fear that violence would erupt." I then asked, "Why do you ask?"
To which he replied, "The camp director/teacher told me I shouldn't be so nice to the kids who are misbehaving, that I should threaten them with the reading of the riot act. And Mom you wouldn't believe how well it works! Today a boy was standing up on the bus seat on our way back from a field trip and when I threatened him with the reading of the riot act he immediately sat down and was no problem the rest of the trip. I figured it must be some kind of special education law that I should know about." Well, I then had a good laugh and explained to my son that it was actually a figure of speech that meant knock it off or you're in big trouble.
Obviously the student had heard it before and knew what the proper response needed to be. This incident spurred my interest to find out the origins of the phrase, which led me to your site. Thanks for the historical connection.
My son and I concluded that obviously he must have always been such a good boy that he had never been introduced to the "riot act" threat!

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Good job the act is repealed or we would have the House of Parliament cleared on a regular basis, when Gordon Brown speaks. So that no one would protest or question Labour party’s ridiculous policies… totalitarianism!

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