What is the Riot Act, and Why Don't I Want It Read to Me?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 2011, NBC published a guide on how employees could "read the riot act" to their subordinates. Professional footballer Stéphane Mahé was once "read the riot act" after fouling a rival player so hard he needed four stitches. In Bibb County, Georgia, a Superior Court Judge "read the riot act" to a group of wayward teens in an effort to curb their bad behavior.

The idiom, which has been in use for centuries, is generally thought to mean the admonishment of a person or persons who have committed an error in judgment. But the origin of the term "riot act" concerns a very particular wrongdoing—an unlawful public assembly that peace officers of the 18th century fought with a pre-written warning to disperse or face serious repercussions. Like death.

Atlas Obscura reports that the riot act was first passed by British Parliament in 1714 and took effect on August 1, 1715. At its core, the Act served as what linguists refer to as a speech act: a word, phrase, or order that carries real weight. (Think of an ordained minister pronouncing a couple husband and wife.) If confronted with a rowdy crowd, an authoritarian would arrive and—this was crucial—read the Act aloud in order to serve formal notice that the parties involved were overstepping their bounds.

A copy of language appearing in the Riot Act
Jenson, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Act was passed in haste because supporters of the Catholic Jacobite political movement had been voicing their disapproval of King George I. A "riot" was any group of 12 or more people that was engaged in public disharmony. Typically, the raucous formation would be given 60 minutes to take a hike. If not, their just punishment would be prison, labor, or death. If the peace officer believed danger was imminent, he wouldn't have to wait the whole hour: He could deputize citizens to try and break up the gathering.

To enforce the Act and any punishments, the officer had to punctuate the reading by shouting, "God save the King!"

Scholars have wondered how successful such orators were in scolding a large assembly of angry protestors. In 1768, the answer was: not very. People opposing the imprisonment of radical John Wilkes ignored the Riot Act and suffered shots of musket ball, which killed seven.

The Riot Act was officially repealed in England and Wales in 1967 as part of some legislative housekeeping. Today, it's almost always used as a figure of speech, although Belize still recognizes it as a meaningful method of crowd dispersal. In 2017, police officers drew criticism for launching tear gas into a People's United Party protest without first reading them the Riot Act.

Questioned by a reporter, assistant commissioner of police Edward Broaster said that the incident didn't "meet the threshold" for busting out the paperwork.

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Why Did Noon Used to Mean 3 p.m.?

3 p.m. is basically noon for people who wake up at 12 p.m.
3 p.m. is basically noon for people who wake up at 12 p.m.
Mckyartstudio/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re a late sleeper, you might find yourself thinking 12 p.m. seems way too early to be considered midday, and the word noon would much better describe, say, 3 p.m. It turns out that ancient Romans would have agreed with you, if only for etymological reasons.

As Reader’s Digest explains, the days in ancient Rome were split into four periods of three hours each. The first hour was at sunrise around 6 a.m.—called prime, for first—followed by 9 a.m. (terce, denoting the third hour), 12 p.m. (sext, for sixth), and 3 p.m. (none, for ninth).

According to Merriam-Webster, Middle and Old English borrowed the time-keeping tradition, along with the Latin word for ninth, which was changed to nōn and eventually noon. Though we’re not sure exactly when or why noon started referring to 12 p.m. instead of 3 p.m., it could have something to do with Christian prayer traditions. In the Bible, Jesus’s crucifixion is said to have taken place at the ninth hour, and that’s when worshippers partook in their second of three daily prayers; the others were in the morning and evening. It’s possible that hungry monks were behind noon’s gradual shift from 3 p.m. to 12 p.m.—since their daily fast didn’t end until after the midday prayer, they had a built-in motive for moving it earlier.

While we didn’t exactly stay true to the original Latin meaning of noon, there’s another important remnant of ancient Rome hiding in the way we tell time today. Romans referred to 12 p.m. as meridiem, for midday, and so do we. A.M. is an abbreviation for ante meridiem, or before midday, and P.M. means post meridiem, or after midday.

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