Costa Living: 'Be careful' and other parental warnings

Peter Costa

Most of us have used phrases and idioms without really knowing their meaning or origins.

For example, have you gotten a “stern lecture” lately? Parents usually are the ones who issue the lectures for misbehavior.

Few of us, however, exhibited such heinous behavior as to merit being read the “Riot Act.”

It is a commonly used phrase but few people know its origins.

Like most things in United States law, the Riot Act actually is a British legal invention. In the difficult raucous days of 1714, the British Parliament established the act, which prohibited groups of people of 12 or more to assemble or congregate as a group. This act was to protect the state from “tumultuous and riotous assemblies.”

The police and other authorities at the time were required to read the act to warn people off the consequences of not dispersing – like arrest, incarceration or beheading. This became know as being “read the Riot Act.”

In a not so draconian way, I used to get warned about being due for a “rude awakening” for my wisecracking at school.

In desperation my mother used to tell me to “Straighten up and fly right.” I wonder if she knew the 1943 hit song by Nat King Cole of the same title?

The chorus was: “Straighten up and fly right/ Cool down, papa, don’t you blow your top.”

My mother also liked bird expressions. Whenever she saw me with troublemaker kids she would remind me of guilt by association:

“Remember, birds of a feather flock together. Stay away from those bad boys.”

My mother was also keen on noses.

“Keep your nose clean,” and “Keep your nose to the grindstone,” were favorites of hers.

Then there were what I call the “nice” commands: “Take time to smell the roses,”  “Be well,” “Take care,” and the ubiquitous “Have a nice day.”

Let me close with a cautionary command: “Keep your powder dry.” If you don’t own a musket, then “Stay cool.”

Peter Costa is a columnist for GateHouse Media. His latest book is a novel, “The Priest’s Gamble.” It is available at and