Where does “to read the riot act” come from?

Dear Cecil:

Where does the phrase "to read the riot act" come from?

Cecil replies:

Believe it or not, there actually was a riot act once, and they really used to read from it.

The English Riot Act of 1714 prescribed an official “order to disperse” that was to be read to any crowd of 12 or more persons whom the authorities deemed to be an unruly assembly. If the crowd failed to comply with an hour, they were guilty of a felony and liable to life imprisonment.

But the proclamation had to be read word-for-word or it didn’t count. At one raucous gathering in 1830, an unfortunate British official omitted the words “God save the king” and the whole bunch got off scot free.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

Comment on this Column