What does the idiom "red tape" mean?

You are wondering about the meaning of the phrase red tape, maybe you heard it in a TV show, movie or theater play. Although this idiom is not used very often, it enriches your capacity of expression and strengthens communication. In which case is the expression red tape used and what is its meaning?

Meaning of "red tape"


The phrase 'red tape' is an idiom used to describe a situation of excessive or bureaucratic paperwork, or an overly-complicated bureaucratic process or procedures. The term is often used to refer to a situation where officials are overly involved in decisions or processes, causing them to become mired in paperwork and bureaucracy. In this sense, 'red tape' can be seen as a figurative barrier that delays or prevents progress.


The expression 'red tape' has its origins in the 16th century, when it was used to describe the red sealing-wax used by public officials in the British government. This wax was used to bind important documents such as laws or treaties. The expression gained popularity in the 19th century, when the excessive use of this wax to bind documents was used as a metaphor for excessive government regulation. By the 20th century, the expression had come to be used to refer to any bureaucratic or overly-complicated process.


The phrase 'red tape' is often used to describe a situation in which bureaucracy and paperwork have hampered progress or made a situation overly difficult. The phrase can refer to private or governmental organizations, and is often used to refer to situations in which regulations or policies are overly restrictive or interfere with progress. 'Red tape' can also be used to describe situations in which government officials have become overly involved in decisions, delays, or an overly-complicated process.

Example Sentences

  • I'm trying to get a permit for my business, but it's taking forever because of all the red tape.
  • The government needs to simplify the process or else they will never get anything done, because it's all bogged down in red tape.
  • We can't expect things to get done quickly without cutting through the red tape.

The meanings of the words in the "red tape" idiom

Idioms with similar meanings in different languages

"Barking up the wrong tree" is an English idiom that means to pursue a mistaken or misguided course of action. In German, the similar idiom is "Auf dem Holzweg sein," which translates to "To be on the wrong track." This idiom emphasizes the idea that when you are pursuing the wrong course of action, you are not going to achieve your desired outcome.


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