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What does that mean?

April 28, 2008

by Jen Bakken

Recently while driving in the car with my soon-to-be adult son, I used the phrase, “He read me the riot act” and the second I said those words, my son whipped his head around, cursed his eyebrows and said, “What did you just say?”

I repeated what I said, and he asked, “What the heck does that mean?”

After explaining that it means to reprimand or lecture, he remained confused.

From the look on his face it was more than obvious he had never heard this expression.

Next, he basically “read me the riot act” by saying, “Mom where does that come from? Is it something old people say? Don’t ever use that saying with me again, it makes no sense.”

I ran out of ways to defend my choice of words. Without a clue where I first heard the expression, or how I learned what it meant and where the phrase came from, the subject was dropped.

Dropped until we were home and I went to the computer to search for information about it.

According to www.phrases.org, this figurative phrase has been used since the early 19th century.

Reading someone the riot act means to reprimand rowdy characters and warn them to stop behaving badly.

(In other words I should read my children the riot act!)

In 1715, English law included a real Riot Act used to control groups of unruly citizens.

Back then, punishments for ignoring the Act were severe including possible imprisonment with hard labor for up to two years.

(Again, I should read my children the riot act and then put them to work doing chores around the house!)

Of course, my son was completely uninterested in my findings regarding the riot act.

There are many things we say in conversation, without a thought or clue to where they came from.

If we tell someone that every thing is hunky dory, what does that actually mean?

When we declare that someone dances to the beat of a different drummer, do we have any idea where that came from?

What is a dead ringer, really?

Does it make anyone feel better when someone instructs them not to cry over spilt milk?

Was there a time when someone died after kicking a bucket?

It’s no wonder we confuse our children. Sometimes they take things so literal that it doesn’t take a cliché, phrase, or expression to cause their bewilderment.

After my 10-year-old son’s baseball practice, his little sister overheard the coach instruct the hopeful Major Leaguers to have nut cups.

On the way home she looked at her brother as he took a swig out of his new water bottle.

She asked why he needed another cup when he already had a bottle he was drinking out of.

This caused big brother to erupt in laughter.

“It’s a different kind of cup!” he announced.

She kept questioning and finally I tried to explain to my little girl what a nut cup was and why it was used.

I told her boys have to protect their private parts from being hit with baseballs, to which she said, “I still don’t get what that has to do with a bottle?”