I feel like I’ve spent half my life on trains recently, but that’s not such a bad thing. While waiting for trains and dealing with delays, every so often something will catch my attention and give me some blog-spiration!

Today is no different; I’m writing because a sign between platforms warning passengers of the risks of travelling without a ticket caught my attention: “don’t get caught red-handed!”, it read. I knew that to be caught “red-handed” meant “caught doing something wrong”, i.e. breaking the law. However, I had no idea where the phrase came from. So, I decided to do some research!

It turns out we’ve been using this expression* for centuries! “Red handed” was first used in Scotland in 1432, when an early version of the saying – “red hand” – was recorded in Scottish King James I’s Acts of Parliament*. This phrase was used a lot in court cases to talk about criminals being caught with blood on their hands after committing murder! Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at the gruesome* origins of this phrase – after all, why else would someone’s hands be bright red? Unless they’ve been chopping beetroot, that is!

However, it wasn’t until 1819 that the saying “red-handed” was coined* by Scottish historian* and novelist Sir Walter Scott in his book Ivanhoe. As lots of people read Scott’s books, the phrase “red-handed” became common, and this is probably why we still use it today.

So, are there any similar sayings in other languages? In Italian you might say that someone is caught “con le mani nel sacco”, which translates as “with your hands in the bag”. As you may have guessed, this saying refers to stealing something – so slightly less serious than murder!

You may have heard a similar phrase in American English, being caught “with your hands in the cookie jar”. However, the American version usually refers to people stealing from their employers*.

The Portuguese versions of “red-handed”, “com a boca na botija” and “com a boca na torneira”, meaning “with your mouth on the bottle” or “with your mouth at the faucet*”, most likely refer to people being caught drinking stolen wine. However, these expressions were usually spoken between friends and family rather than written down in official documents, so it’s unclear when they were first used or where they came from.

Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find any similar sayings in other languages with as much of a bloodthirsty background as the English (or rather Scottish) “red-handed”. I wonder if the train companies thought about the history of the phrase when designing the sign…

Is there anything I’ve missed? Get in touch and let us know how to say “red-handed” in any other languages you know!


*expression = word/phrase

*Acts of Parliament = a document where laws were written

*gruesome = causing horror

*coined = first used

*historian = a person who studies/writes about events in the past

*employer = the person or organisation a person works for

*faucet = a tap