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When I was a very young grammarian, my mother would proclaim her readiness to read the riot act if her children got too rowdy, or too lazy, and I remember my baby-nerd delight when I found out that the Riot Act was once a genuine regulation. Ella Morton's 2014 article in Slate gives an overview that's the subject of our Fandom Grammar editorial today.

As Morton notes, the riot act is not just a quirky metaphor for someone coming to the end of their tether over another person's bad behaviour. The crowds in British cities could be a riotous bunch in the very literal sense of that word and in 1714 Parliament passed a law called the Riot Act, setting out the procedures for dealing with 'riotous assembly'. Morton's article has a variety of useful links, most of which are still active, including the Gutenberg Press file of the full and original Riot Act. Gutenberg Press is a fun and valuable site if you're interested in books and literature that have fallen out of copyright.

If you feel like seeking a bit more depth on the internet, most of what's available in additional links that I could find covers the material that Morton has used, but I did enjoy this link which provides an early example of metaphorical use of riot act. Not surprisingly perhaps, it's to do with trying to control unruly children. In a letter of 1819, William Bradford writes "She has just run out to read the riot act in the Nursery." Obviously, this is not the William Bradford who was an important figure in United States colonial history, but instead I presume the Bradford who was a chaplain to UK embassies in Europe and who wrote a now somewhat obscure history of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

To read the original Riot Act was a quite literal proceeding. A magistrate, fearing that a riot could develop, would read out the pertinent part of the act and the crowd had one hour in which to disperse or face the full measure of the law, which could include imprisonment or even the death penalty. Morton's article sets out several occasions where fear of punishment wasn't enough to prevent violence in the streets. The Riot Act’s heyday was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it wasn't actually revoked until 1967.

The riot act is an historical fact that’s made its way into everyday speech, and Morton's article gives us a useful introduction to its journey from law to metaphor.
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