red tape

Red tape is excessive bureaucracy or rigid adherence to bureaucratic rules and regulations. But why tape? And why is it red?

It is tradition, dating back to the 18th century, to bind government documents together using a red ribbon or tape. There is no particular reason for choosing the color red; it’s just an arbitrary choice. From Maryland Laws, written between 1696 and 1715:

The Map...upon the Backside thereof sealed with his Excellency’s Seal at Arms on a Red Cross with Red Tape.

And we start to see metaphorical use by 1736 in John Hervey’s Poetical Epistle to the Queen:

Let Wilmington, with grave, contracted brow, Red tape and wisdom at the Council show.

The association between red tape and bureaucracy was firmly established by the 19th century. From Catherine Gore’s 1837 Stokeshill Place:

My dear, you mistake John Barnsley...Dearly as he loves a bit of red tape, you never saw him try to inspire any other man with the love of business.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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