In my impression it is generally accepted that "red handed" referred to the blood-red evidence found on a thus discriminated criminal.

Then, what does "red handed war" mean?

New-York daily tribune. 1848 (2nd collumn, first line)

I sent you, to-night, a Telegraphic Dispatch, an-

nouncing the arrival in this City of a Treaty of

Peace. Yes, Peace, with angel fingers, has "fold-

ed the banner of red handed war".

Anti-slavery bugle.1846 (4th collumn, near top)

"If this church divides, it is but another

precursor of a division of the States and a red

handed civil war."

I searched only one variation in only one search engine, and found two of seven 19th century results showing this quite different sense. Naturally one has to ask where the phrase, and its parts, came from, but this can often not be determined precisely. It seems difficult to explain this sense derived from a set phrase "caught red handed" and thus unlikely to have been its original use and meaning.

I found it unlikely, though not impossible, actually even convincing, that "blood-" was the original sense. It's pretty hard to search for a term that is not precisely known, more so if taboo could be stipulated as the reason for its absence. So please forgive me if I didn't even try.

Its meaning is broader than murder or violence and could, today at least, describe a thief with pockets full of loot leaving the premisses through a window. This is more likely if no such forbidding sense as "murder" is inherently attached.

I rather suppose a link to rude (< Lat "rudis"), for several reasons. I'll spare you the details. I don't mean the question to be preoccupied, though I am.

Disclaimer: I'm not sure how broad is too broad for a question. Feel free to read and answer as narrow as you like. Not answering at all would be most narrow, implying there was no connection--that's not to say narrow-minded.

  • Suppose it matters, What is "red handed war"?

  • What's the oldest use of "red hand-"

  • Has it always implied blood? Does it, now? How was it coined?

  • Could it be a mondegreen, a reinterpretation within English? (if you answer to this, and not just not "Yes", but clearly "No" then you need a very strong reason; As strong as the requirement you would hold to an argument for a positive answer).

PS: After Tim Lyminton's answer I noticed mens rea and in medias res, "guilty mind" and "in the middle of the thing [deed, act, crime]". Of course, I can't establish a secure connection, neither with red, nor rew, and much less rude, nor G ruhe "quiet, still" so I will have to accept the given answer for now.

  • after preparing this weaks ago, I don't even remember why exactly "rude", now it strikes me as alien, but I have a the text saved somewhere that didn't make it into the answer.
    – vectory
    Nov 13, 2019 at 21:12
  • There is the expresssion "blood on one's hands" which may be used literally but often figuratively. So "red handed." Nov 13, 2019 at 21:16
  • 1
    The oldest published use of "red hand" seems to be the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I, 1432. phrases.org.uk/meanings/caught-red-handed.html
    – Juhasz
    Nov 13, 2019 at 21:17

2 Answers 2


The OED has, for red-handed, (besides the Scottish legal term, which presumably has the same root but about which you already know)

(In attributive use). That sheds or has shed blood; bloody, sanguinary. Now archaic. 1759 R. Church in E. Spenser Faerie Queene II. iii. 47 He might, for memory of that daye's ruth, Be called Ruddymaine. [Note] i.e. Red-handed.

and a third zoological sense, which is purely literal and applied to certain types of monkey.

The oldest recorded use, as Juhasz says, is in the Scottish Acts of Parliament; since this meant and means 'caught in the act', it presumably referred originally to blood-spattered thugs, though it became a term of art. Otherwise, you can be red-handed if you failed to wear gloves on the sunbed: if you have been handwashing your coloureds: or if you have weltered in gore. I think I can guess which a Yellow Press journalist meant.

  • Iit's short sighted to rely only on written evidence, but that's par for the course. I mean, heavy handed parallels Ger mit erhobener Hand "with held up hand", i.e. ready to strike down, or at least warning; even handed also comes to mind which (perhaps by sheer coincidence) would contrast rude as I alluded to, or rather raw. The quote using -maine is interesting and reminded me (again by coincidence?) of mens rea (not manus though). Your "guess" might well explain how it was understood in 18th c., so I will accept, but that would just mean it doesn't inform the earlier idiom.
    – vectory
    Dec 14, 2019 at 0:07

(idiomatic) Showing clear evidence of guilt; in the act of wrongdoing.

  • 3
    You need to attribute your source and indicate that it is a quote
    – Laurel
    Dec 13, 2019 at 23:45

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