Recently, I was listening to an episode of the Planet Money podcast, titled “Trump vs. Red Tape,” and after the hosts had said the phrase “red tape” for what felt like the 50th time, I started wondering where we get it.
Why do we call bureaucracy “red tape”?
It turns out it’s pretty simple. In the 1500s, Charles V, the king of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, started tying red string or ribbons, also known as “tape,” around administrative documents that were especially important and needed quick attention. It worked well, and the practice quickly spread to other royal courts throughout Europe. (You may remember in the “Duck Tape or Duct Tape” episode we also talked about strips of cloth being called “tape.”)
You can think of the first example in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1658, as foreshadowing how red tape would come to be something of a problem because it’s about a red-taped bundle being lost:
A Little bundle of Papers tied with a red Tape, were lost on Friday last was a seven night, between Worcester-house and Lincolns-Inn.
Whoever those belonged to was already having his or her project derailed by a problem with red tape! Or at least related to a red-taped bundle.
“Red tape” has been used to describe cumbersome bureaucracy since the 1700s, and I particularly like this example from “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens (1850):
Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape.