Why is it Called Red Tape?

Legal and official documents have been bound with red tape since the 17th century and continue to be so.

Red tape is a derisive term for excessive regulation or rigid conformity to formal rules that is considered redundant or bureaucratic and hinders or prevents action or decision-making. It is usually applied to the government, but can also be applied to other organizations like corporations.

Things often described as “red tape” include filling out paperwork, obtaining licenses, having multiple people or committees approve a decision, and various low-level rules that make conducting one’s affairs slower, more difficult, or both. It is generally believed that the term originated with the Spanish administration of Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, in the early 16th century, who started to use red tape in an effort to modernize the administration that was running his vast empire.

The red tape was used to bind the most important administrative dossiers that required immediate discussion by the Council of State, and separate them from issues that were treated in an ordinary administrative way, which were bound with ordinary string. Although they were not governing such a vast territory as Charles V, this practice of using red tape to separate the important dossiers that had to be discussed was quickly copied by the other modern European monarchs to speed up their administrative machines.

England’s Henry VIII used red string, ribbon, or cloth to secure the petitions he sent to Pope Clement VII requesting the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1527. The tradition continued through to the 17th and 18th centuries.

In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens wrote, “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.” The English practice of binding documents and official papers with red tape was popularized in Thomas Carlyle’s writings, protesting against official inertia with expressions like “Little other than a red tape Talking-machine, and unhappy Bag of Parliamentary Eloquence”.

In the late 20th century and continuing into the 21st century, with civil servants using computers and information technology, a legacy from the administration of the Spanish Empire can still be observed

where some parts of the higher levels of the Spanish administration continue the tradition of using red tape to bind important dossiers that need to be discussed and to keep them bound in red tape when the dossier is closed.

Red Tape Facts

Documents important to veterans of the American Civil War were
bound in red tape, including those necessary to obtain pensions,
as well as those holding the verdicts of soldiers facing criminal trials.

Further Reading


The Phrase Finder
The Economic Times
Today I Found Out
World Histories
Louisville Public Media

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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