Red tape

What does it mean?

Red tape refers to rules or procedures which seem to be unnecessary and prevent taking faster action. This phrase is often used when talking about businesses or organisations who can’t achieve something that they want to. For example, a company trying to open a new factory could find this delayed by red tape as the premises need to be inspected by authorities and approved for this use. Of course, what some people might refer to as red tape may in fact be very sensible rules that are designed to ensure safety. Whether something is red tape or not is therefore a matter of opinion.

Red tape is perhaps sometimes used as an excuse not to do something in order to divert blame.

red tape idiom meaning

Where does it come from?

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain in the 16th Century, introduced a practice of binding important documents with red string. This allowed him to know which documents required urgent discussion. Soon afterwards other monarchs in Europe copied this practice. The red tape therefore refers to the red string that was used.

In the late 18th or early 19th Century, the phrase red tape began to be associated with unnecessary bureaucracy.

How can I use it?

The verbs most often associated with red tape are to cut (through)to deal with and to reduce.

  • The current government are determined to cut through the red tape for small business owners.
  • I gave up running my business because I couldn’t deal with the red tape.
  • The government should reduce the red tape involved in starting a business.

As red tape is considered to be negative, there are a number of quantifiers that are commonly used such as a lot oftoo much and so much. There are some more unusual quantifiers that are used however:

  • They are buried under a mountain of red tape.
  • This project involves cutting through miles of red tape.
  • We haven’t finished dealing with the layers of red tape yet.

We can also add adjectives to describe red tape. Common adjectives include bureaucraticunnecessaryexcessive and needless:

  • The government need to reduce the amount of unnecessary and bureaucratic red tape.
  • Many hospital managers complain of excessive red tape.

Red tape often appears at the end of a sentence or clause. We can specify what red tape we are talking about using verbs such as involved inassociated with or to get. Alternatively for  can be used to state who the red tape affects. For example:

  • There is too much red tape involved in opening a business.
  • At our bank, there is no red tape to get approved for a loan.
  • There’s too much red tape for building inspectors nowadays.

What are some examples?

  • Successive governments have done little to tackle the mountains of red tape involved in starting a small business.
  • If the amount of unnecessary red tape was reduced, hospitals could focus on what really matters – treating patients.
  • The new mayor has promised to reduce the miles of excessive red tape in local government.

What are some similar or related expressions?

  • the powers that be

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