Q: I asked ChatGPT to create a Midjourney prompt for an image with many flowers. The prompt, or text phrase, asked for “a riot of flowers.” When did a “riot” come to mean many things as well as a violent disturbance?
A: The noun “riot” has meant an extraordinary profusion, often of brilliant colors, for more than three centuries.
That sense of the term, first recorded in the early 18th century, refers to “an impressively large or varied display of something, esp. a vivid display of colour,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a treatise on art that discusses the story of Hercules at the crossroads as a possible subject for a painting:
“Such a Confusion, Oppugnancy [conflict], and Riot of Colours, as wou’d to any judicious Eye appear absolutely intolerable” (from A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules, 1713, by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury).
The next OED citation, also expanded, is from an essay that compares the “ghost-like” white (or opium) poppy to the “fuller-blooded” red poppy:
“A riot of scarlet on gold, the red poppy of our native fields tosses heavy tresses with gipsy abandon” (from “White Poppy,” in Pagan Papers, 1894, an essay collection by Kenneth Grahame).
When “riot’ first appeared in early Middle English in the 12th century, it meant “waywardness” or “contrariness,” a sense that’s now obsolete or rare, the OED says.
The first Oxford example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200. This passage describes someone who’s guilty of the sin of contumacy, or stubborness:
“fet hwa se is anewil i þing þet ha haueð undernume to donne, beo hit god, beo hit uuel, þet na wisure read ne mei bringen hire ut of hire riote” (“she is so obstinate at whatever thing she has undertaken to do—be it good, be it evil—that no wiser counsel can bring her out of her riot [waywardness].”
In the early 14th century, the OED says, “riot” came to mean “an instance or course of riotous living; esp. an act of noisy, wanton revelry; a riotous or unruly feast or revel.”
The first Oxford example is from The Seven Sages of Rome (circa 1330), a Middle English collection of stories concerning Florentin, son of the Roman Emperor Diocletian:
“He scholde nowt in Rome bilaue, For Burgeis, maiden, oþer knaue Miȝte him in som riot sette Þat al his lore he scholde lette” (“He should not stay in Rome because a burgher, maiden or other knave might lead him into some riot that should make him forsake all his learning”).
In the early 15th century, according to OED citations, “riot” took on its usual modern sense of “a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd; an outbreak of violent civil disorder or lawlessness.”
The first Oxford example for this use of “riot,” which we’ve expanded, is from a 1433 entry in the Rolls of Parliament during the reign of King Henry VI:
“in eschuyng of Riotes, Excesses, mysgovernances and disobeissances ayenst the Kynges astate.” (Two earlier Oxford examples for this usage have a somewhat different meaning.)
Oxford explains that the sense of “riot” as an impressive display was “originally an extended use” of the riotous living usage, but it’s “now often interpreted in the light of” the violent disturbance sense.
In other words, an expression like “a riot of colors” now suggests the wildness of both—riotous living as well as riotous violence.
Finally, here’s a recent example of the usage from a headline in Sky & Telescope magazine about the James Webb Space Telescope (Nov. 18, 2022):
“WEBB TELESCOPE REVEALS STARBIRTH IN A RIOT OF COLORS”
And this is the image: