“Reading the riot act” to someone just doesn’t sound right. It should be, “reading the rights act,” shouldn’t it? As in, telling someone how to ACT RIGHT. Am I right? Sounds reasonable, to my mind. Which is why I’ve always had issue with saying the phrase correctly. And this is where history comes in as a valuable player to those of us who enjoy linguistics, etymology, and the like.
As you may know, the former is (riot act) how it is said, because as phrases.org.uk notes, it seems that a Riot Act actually existed way back in the 1700’s, created when George I thought he might be overthrown by the ‘riotous assemblies.’ Although since the early 19th century we have served up the riot act in the form of a sort of reprimand, being called out on riotous behavior back in King George’s time was much harsher: penal servitude for not less than three years, or imprisonment with hard labour for up to two years.
Makes me feel not quite so bad about having read the riot act to people over the years. How about you? After all, it’s not like they were imprisoned…