Cutting Through the Red Tape: Keeping Legal Documents Sealed

Hello, Bologna readers. It’s been a hectic two days at work, but I’ve finally found time to talk with you about a new idiom.

Today’s post is pretty quick. Here we go.

“Cut through the red tape.” It’s a figure of speech, referring to official work & paperwork. Once you cut through the red tape, or get the housekeeping out of the way, you can get down to business.

This one is extremely straightforward & has a very literal explanation. The only hitch is that when we talk about cutting through the tape, we’re not talking about the Scotch or duct kind. We’re talking about ribbon. Beginning in the Seventeenth Century, lawyers, government workers & basically anyone who had access to official documents kept them closed by tying them red ribbon. In order to open the document to read it, you quite literally had to cut the red ribbon.


1906 US Pension documents bound in red tape
Photo used courtesy of Jarek Tuszynski

The Phrase Finder’s entry on this word says the first figurative use of the phrase goes to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1838 work, Alice, or the Mysteries. He writes:

The men of more dazzling genius began to sneer at the red-tape minister as a mere official manager of details.

As you can see, the phrase eventually evolved to also be figurative, but its roots are still very clear. Before attending to their business, lawyers had to literally cut through red tape to open their documents. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Anyway, it’s back to work for me. I hope you all enjoy the rest of your week. I’ll leave you here.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Filed under Etymology

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