The Meaning of Red Tape: What It Is and How To Use It

Do you know the definition of red tape? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word red tape, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

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What does the term red tape mean?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged English Dictionary and Dictionary, the term red tape (pronounced red ˈteɪp) is a noun that is used to mean excessive formality, bureaucracy, or routine that is required before some action can be taken. This is often used in the phrase “cut through red tape” which is used to mean avoiding bureaucracy or formal ways of doing things so that some action can be taken. Bureaucratic procedures and excessive red tape can often be time-consuming. This might consist of filling out numerous official documents or government documents, waiting on decision-making from officials, having to follow official rules or an official routine or other bureaucratic red tape. This is often used in American English to refer to cutting red tape, or to reference formalities that surround something. Related words include the noun redtapism.

Many different languages also have terms for red tape, meaning excessive bureaucracy. You may notice that some of these terms look similar to each other. This is likely because they are from a similar origin. Cognates, which are words that have a similar look, sound, and meaning across languages, are often formed when two words have a similar root in a language like Latin or Greek. This list of translations for the term red tape is provided by Word Sense.

  • Chinese – Mandarin: 繁文縟節‎, 繁文缛节‎ (fánwénrùjié), 官僚习气‎
  • French: impôt papier‎ (masc.), paperasserie‎ (fem.)
  • Spanish: papeleo‎ (masc.), burocracia‎ (fem.), cinta roja‎ (fem.)
  • Russian: бюрократи́зм‎ (masc.), канцеля́рщина‎ (fem.), волоки́та‎ (fem.)
  • Afrikaans: rompslomp‎
  • Finnish: paperisota‎
  • German: Amtsschimmel‎ (masc.)
  • Swedish: byråkrati‎
  • Japanese: 繁文縟礼‎ (hanbun jokurei), レッドテープ‎ (reddo teepu), (slang) お役所さんの仕事‎ (o-yakusho-san no shigoto)
  • Portuguese: burocracia‎ (fem.)

What is the origin of the term red tape?

According to Phrases and Etymonline, the term red tape has been used since the year 1736 to mean excessive bureaucratic rigmarole. This term was formerly used to refer to the literal red tape used in Great Britain that was used to bind legal documents. This literal term has been used since the 1690s. The first reference to this term comes from the Maryland Laws in the below quote:

“The Map upon the Backside thereof sealed with his Excellency’s Seal at Arms on a Red Cross with Red Tape.”

From there, the term began to be used more figuratively. The first time that the figurative usage of the phrase red tape was used was in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Alice or The Mysteries in 1838 in the below quote:

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

How can the term red tape be used in a sentence?

The term red tape can be used in numerous different sentences and scenarios in order to refer to some form of excessive bureaucracy. In the below example, Nat is trying to make a reservation for her boss at a restaurant.

Operator: Hotel, how can I help you?

Nat: Hi! I am trying to make a reservation at the poolside restaurant–

Operator: Transferring you now.

Nat: No, hold on! I have been transferred three different times to three different people, all of whom told me I had to talk to a different person or make a reservation online. There is no reservation service for that restaurant online, and they kept transferring me to the wrong restaurant. Can you make the reservation?

Operator: No, you have to speak to the restaurant.

Nat: I just told you the restaurant I was transferred to wouldn’t help me.

Operator: Well, that’s just the way we operate.

Nat: Who knew there was so much red tape around making a reservation?

Here, Nat uses the term red tape to refer to the excessive formality surrounding a restaurant reservation since no one can help her.

What are synonyms and antonyms for the term red tape?

There are numerous different terms that can be used in place of the term red tape. These are called synonyms, which are words and phrases that have the same definition as another word or phrase. Synonyms are very useful to know if you are trying to avoid repeating yourself or if you are trying to expand your vocabulary. This list of synonyms for the term red tape is provided by Thesaurus.

  • paper shuffling
  • officialdom
  • regulatory commission
  • proper channels
  • red tape
  • civil service
  • directorate
  • government
  • the system
  • bureaucracy
  • city hall
  • the Establishment
  • powers that be
  • powers that be
  • the system
  • the Establishment
  • authority
  • regulatory commission
  • administration
  • government
  • official forms
  • city hall
  • management
  • beadledom
  • officials
  • bureaucratic paperwork
  • officialdom
  • officialism
  • official procedures
  • ministry
  • authority
  • management

There are also numerous different words and phrases that mean the opposite of the term red tape. These are called antonyms, which are also useful to know if you are trying to expand your vocabulary and knowledge of the English language. This list of antonyms for the term red tape are provided by Thesaurus as well. 

  • free hand
  • permissiveness
  • free enterprise
  • inaction
  • nonintervention
  • indifference
  • for the most
  • part unrestrained by law free trade
  • noninterference
  • laisser passer
  • do-nothing policy
  • latitude
  • live and let live
  • let-alone policy
  • nonrestriction
  • laissez faire
  • laisser aller
  • individualism
  • neutrality
  • laissez-faire

Overall, the term red tape is used to refer to excessive formality, bureaucracy, or actions that must be taken in order to accomplish something. If something is surrounded by a lot of red tape, it is very difficult to accomplish due to official procedures that must be followed.