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Where Does The Phrase 'Red Tape' Come From?

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In a video Wednesday announcing his administration's new Red Tape Reduction initiative, Gov. Matt Bevin stands with his right arm around a maroon-colored sign with a drawing of a horse jockey. The sign reads "Exit to Kentucky."

The video launched Bevin's push to reduce the number of state regulations -- red tape, as he calls it -- in an effort to get businesses to think about Kentucky when they’re considering locating or relocating.

That got us wondering: Where does the phrase "red tape" come from?

Andrew Rabin, a professor of English at the University of Louisville, says the term "red tape" comes from the filing practices of the 16th century.

Picture this: an archive with miles and miles of documents from all of Europe. Binding those documents with red tape, or red ribbon, became the most convenient, but also the most visible way to keep track of the them, Rabin says.

"And so that’s why you would have these vast archives of pile of document after pile of document, each pile bound with the distinctive red tape that was a sign of government usage," he says.

The term today is coded language employed mostly by those who are politically opposed to bigger government.

"Now it’s come to mean something similar to government obstruction or bureaucratic obstruction," Rabin says. "So if I have to fight my way through a series of documents or fight my way through a series of forms, if there’s something I want to achieve but seemingly meaningless procedure gets in the way -- I’m fighting my way through red tape."

Bevin's Red Tape Reduction effort is supported by the Kentucky Petroleum Marketers Association, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Kentucky Retail Federation, the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business and Associated General Contractors of Kentucky.

Bevin’s office has set up a website, RedTapeReduction.com where people can “report a reg” and describe how the policy is “hurting you/your business.”

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.

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