Reading the Riot Act: Protest in Everyday Language

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A Riot Act tea towel (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

How often were you ‘read the riot act’ as a child? When I started researching historical protest in London two years ago, I learnt the origins of this phrase. The Riot Act was passed in 1714, and gave local authorities the power to declare a gathering of twelve or more people illegal, which meant the group would either have to disperse or face arrest. The Act was read to the offending group, after which they had one hour to disperse peacefully. Although the act was often interpreted incorrectly and, as a result, complicated the  policing of public order rather than simplifying it, it was only repealed relatively recently, in 1967. So that is why you are ‘read the riot act’ when you are causing trouble, it basically means stop or face the consequences.

I recently discovered that the Riot Act is not the only element of the history of protest that has made it into everyday language. When recently reading a book about the numerous revolts and revolutions in Europe during the tumultuous year of 1848 (Rapport, 2008), I learnt that the Italians have a phrase which basically means ‘a right royal mess’: ‘un vero quarantotto’, or, in English, ‘a real 48.’ The events of that year stuck in the minds of Italians to the extent that it became synonymous with any situation where chaos reigned.

These two examples demonstrate just how important protest is to society and culture. Protests and contentious politics can be huge events, standing out in the collective memory as a time of dramatic upheaval, great achievements, or perhaps abject fear for the future. It shouldn’t really be surprising that they can work their way into everyday language in this manner.

Delighted with my discovery of ‘a real 48’, I have been racking my brains for any similar phrases in everyday language that come from a protest of contentious politics. I have yet to think of any, but perhaps the collective wisdom of my readership could help me out? Please comment on this post if you know any, in English or otherwise!


Rapport, Mike. 1848: Year of Revolution. London: Abacus, 2008.

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