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To be taken with red hand in ancient times was to be caught in the act, like a murderer with his hands red with his victim's blood. The use of red hand in this sense goes back to 15th-century Scotland and Scottish law. Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) contains the first recorded use of taken red-handed for someone apprehended in the act of committing a crime. The expression subsequently became more common as caught red-handed.[1]


red-handed (comparative more red-handed, superlative most red-handed)

  1. With clear evidence of guilt.
    • 1991 October, Edward L. Ayers, “Legacy of violence”, American Heritage, volume 42, number 6, page 102: 
      Another Southerner argued that "commerce has no social illusions" and that it would be commerce that would rid the region of "this historic, red-handed, deformed, and swaggering villain."
    • 2003, Julie Elizabeth Leto, Up to no good:
      Made sense she'd be nervous, right? Made sense that she'd jump like a red-handed pickpocket when her friend Danielle, whom she'd thought had zonked out the minute she'd buckled her seat belt ten minutes ago, threw out such an intimate topic of conversation.
    • 2003 August, Pamela Paul, “Dear Reader, Get a Life.”, Psychology Today, volume 36, number 4, page 56: 
      Your husband is having sex with other women -- that's perfectly clear. Sometimes when cheaters are nabbed red-handed they react with anger, they "rage" in an attempt to make the person who caught' em feel like they did something wrong.

Usage notes[edit]

  • Almost always used with the verb to catch.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997), pp. 135-136 and 138.