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What’s the Real Story Behind the Phrase ‘Cutting Through the Red Tape’?

Red Tape

When you have to ‘cut through the red tape,’ it means your have to slog through lots of bureaucratic mud in order to achieve the goals you set out to achieve.

How did tape — colored tape at that — come to represent the headaches that mounds of paperwork, unpleasant clerks and by-the-book functionaries cause us when we’re trying to get something done?

Binding documents

Some documents can be binding in their legal nature, and some documents can be literally bound with some kind of fastener. Red binding, or tape (not the sticky kind) has been used to hold scrolls and documents together for hundreds of years.

Legal red tape

Many written documents in the past were of a legal nature. Woven red tape became the norm (and in some places still is) for binding these legal documents and official decrees together. When anyone wanted to do something in an official manner, there tended to be a lot of legal paperwork to go through, and lots of red tape ‘to cut.’

Red tape and the government

Red tape was used both for legal documents, as well as official announcements from the ruling elite, the courts and from church leaders. It’s no wonder, then, that red tape became associated with the trappings of power, and something that had to be dealt with if you wanted to get anything accomplished.

Charles Dickens and red tape

Charles Dickens, one of the most famous writers in the English language, was probably one of the first people to make use of the phrase ‘red tape’ in its modern form. Mr. Dickens 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.”

And so, when we speak of cutting through the red tape these days, we’re talking about breaking through a burdensome bureaucracy that stands in our way. Charles Dickens didn’t seem to like the hassles and headaches unnecessary paperwork caused him, and neither should you.

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