Tangled etymology

I was writing up my weekly blog on employment law (don’t all rush at once to ask for a copy) when I came across a statement that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was taking urgent steps to radically reduce red tape.

As a phrase ‘red tape’ very effectively and concisely conveys a distinctly visual message. If the machinery of government is bunged up with red tape, it makes me think of an unspooled music cassette jamming a hi-fi.

We are so used to the concept of ‘red tape’ that we instantly process any statement containing the phrase to mean the tortuous combination of bureaucracy, unnecessary and burdensome regulations and time-wasting processes. But this time I read it again and it made me wonder what was the first ‘red tape’ that gave rise to the phrase and, if it was literally red coloured tape, what was it originally used for?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘red tape’ as: “the woven red or pink tape used to secure legal documents and official papers”. The first written record of the phrase comes in 1696, but it is likely that it was in vernacular usage well before then.

Some etymologies suggest that the term originates in administrative reforms undertaken in the reign of Emperor Charles V. The most important documents would be bound in red cord to distinguish them from other, less pressing matters.

An alternative etymology suggests that red ribbons were used in the seals of English bishops, clergymen and nobles in their voluminous petitions to Pope Clement VII supporting Henry VIII’s request for a papal dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Whichever is correct, the practice of binding important documents in red ribbon, cord or tape was adopted throughout Europe. Soon, red tape became synonymous with government, its bureaucracies and courts. It wasn’t long before the phrase assumed negative and figurative connotations.

This modern usage was coined by Charles Dickens, who wrote: “There is a good deal of red tape at Scotland Yard, as anyone may find to his cost who has any business to transact there”. It was also used by Thomas Carlyle, who wrote: “little other than a red tape Talking-machine, and unhappy Bag of Parliamentary Eloquence”.