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Riotous words

Various English cities spent a good portion of last week dealing with rioting, avoiding the riots, commenting on said riots, and cleaning up the aftermath. Leaving aside the ongoing discussion regarding the causes and effects of these civil disturbances, it would be interesting to look at the word riot itself.

Riot has been in use in English since the beginning of the 13th century, with the initial meaning of contrariness, and went on to mean the pursuit of an extravagant lifestyle. It wasn’t until the end of the fourteenth century that it took on the meaning of ‘disturbance or civil unrest caused by a crowd’. This sense has stayed with us ever since (possibly because riots themselves have never really gone away), and also given rise to a number of related, riotous words.

To read someone the riot act now is primarily used in the sense of giving someone a good scolding and exhortation to improve their behaviour. But the Riot Act in question was a somewhat more serious thing – it was a law passed by the British government in 1715 that, among other things, forbade more than 12 people from assembling after having been asked to disperse by the government.

Riot comes up in various expressions and phrases of extended meaning, as in the description of an impressively large or varied display of something (a riot of colour), or, in the twentieth century,  to describe a particularly entertaining person (‘she is such a riot’). People have been allowing themselves (or their imaginations) to run riot since the early sixteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And new riot words are still being added to the language – riot girl (or grrl, or grrrl) is one of the more recent ones, dating from 1991.

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