I recently received a message from the a student in South Africa asking "where did the term 'red tape' come from?"

According to Herbert Kaufman's Red Tape, Its Origins, Use, and Abuses (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1977), "the term red tape derives from the ribbon once used to tie up legal documents in England". [See Red Tape, Issue 1, Jan.-Feb. 1979]

During the Civil War, long, bulky U.S. federal documents were folded into three sections. The documents were then bound together with narrow red ribbon before being shipped off. The recipient then had to cut and remove the ribbons before reading the document. Since the words "tape" and "ribbon" had much the same meaning in the 1800s, the process became known as "cutting the red tape." The term lives on today to describe any needless, time-consuming bureaucratic exercise that delays getting the real job done.

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