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A hue and cry is an outcry to draw attention to a situation. Historically, it was a literal outcry; people would shout, sound horns, and make other noises when a crime was committed to alert the constabulary and make other members of the community aware so they could take action. Today, the term may be used metaphorically, as in “there was a great hue and cry in the media when the documents were released.” It is often used to refer to situations where sustained public attention results in justice or another positive outcome in a situation.
This term is derived from the Old French, and refers to an outcry and sounding of horns, dating back to an earlier Latin term. In England during the Middle Ages, people were actually obliged to raise a hue and cry when a crime was committed and to continue it as the criminal fled, until the criminal was apprehended. Essentially, every member of society had an obligation to assist with catching criminals and there could be penalties for not participating in a hue and cry.
The idea of being obliged to speak up and pursue a case to the end is no longer enshrined in law, but can be seen in the approach in many communities to situations deemed outrages or travesties. People are asked to raise a hue and cry to make sure public attention is called to an issue or a criminal act. This can include bringing pressure to bear on law enforcement, shaming people engaging in socially inappropriate behavior, and pursuing cases that have fallen through the cracks so justice can be served.
An actual hue and cry can still occur, of course. When people observe crimes, they are encouraged to make noise to alert passersby and draw the attention of law enforcement. Raising an outcry can sometimes assist with apprehending criminals and will certainly stop or interrupt a crime in progress. Communities also tend to be safer when people are more proactive about identifying and responding to criminal activity, as they become less appealing as potential targets for criminals.
This term is sometimes rendered as “hew and cry,” the result of confusion about its origins. Since this meaning of the word “hue” is antiquated, it may not make sense to the ears and people write the term out with the spelling that makes the most sense to them. This is a common phenomenon with sayings involving antiquated words with an etymology that has been forgotten by most of the population.