Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Origin: Red Tape

Red tape, meaning excessive and often unnecessary paperwork, rules, regulations and formalities which hinder or prevent effective actions and decisions, is a term that has been with us since the 17th century. It originates from the practice of binding legal and official documents in red cloth tape.

The first recorded reference of the term is in the 1696-1715 Maryland Laws:
"The Map upon the Backside thereof sealed with his Excellency's Seal at Arms on a Red Cross with Red Tape."
Apparently the 80 or so petitions for divorce that Henry VIII sent to the Pope in respect of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon are still stored neatly in the Vatican, each still bound in its original red tape.

From a reference specifically to red tape of lawyers and government officials it came to be used generally as a term for unnecessary bureaucracy, the first recorded usage in that sense being Edward Bulwer-Lytton in Alice, or the Mysteries, 1838:
"The men of more dazzling genius began to sneer at the red-tape minister as a mere official manager of details."
This has led to expressions such as cutting through the red tape or being tied up in red tape.

Lawyers still use tape to bind files but to a lesser extent. It is now mainly used for bulky files although such files are usually converted to ring binders. It is now coloured pink, is called pink ribbon, pink legal ribbon or just legal ribbon and it is expensive to buy because of its quality and strength. When I first became a lawyer the standrad size of letters and documents was foolscap and lawyers used folded half files, not the flat files in use today. Each file was tied in pink legal ribbon to keep it bound and closed. As the file became bigger, the file wanted to spring open more and the need for the ribbon increased.

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