Red: Red Tape, Red Letter Days, Red Herring, Red-Handed, and Rubrics

After black and white, red is the first color that almost all languages gave a name. It’s the color of blood, passion, danger, hunger, and more; and it’s also the source of many wonderful idioms.

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #669

Recently, I was listening to an episode of the Planet Money podcast, titled “Trump vs. Red Tape,” and after the hosts had said the phrase “red tape” for what felt like the 50th time, I started wondering where we get it. 

Red Tape

Why do we call bureaucracy “red tape”?

It turns out it’s pretty simple. In the 1500s, Charles V, the king of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, started tying red string or ribbons, also known as “tape,” around administrative documents that were especially important and needed quick attention. It worked well, and the practice quickly spread to other royal courts throughout Europe. (You may remember in the “Duck Tape or Duct Tape” episode we also talked about strips of cloth being called “tape.”)

You can think of the first example in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1658, as foreshadowing how red tape would come to be something of a problem because it’s about a red-taped bundle being lost:

A Little bundle of Papers tied with a red Tape, were lost on Friday last was a seven night, between Worcester-house and Lincolns-Inn.

Whoever those belonged to was already having his or her project derailed by a problem with red tape! Or at least related to a red-taped bundle.

“Red tape” has been used to describe cumbersome bureaucracy since the 1700s, and I particularly like this example from “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens (1850):

Britannia, that unfortunate female, is always before me, like a trussed fowl: skewered through and through with office-pens, and bound hand and foot with red tape.

And whether you hate how people make up ridiculous-sounding new words or you love how people creatively shape the language, at least you can know it’s been going on for a long time because the OED also includes an example of the word “redtapified” from "Longman’s Magazine" in 1895:

I had not..exaggerated the..redtapefied way in which things were done.

Red Letter Day

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Another phrase with the word “red” that has a relatively straightforward origin is “red letter day,” which means a grand or special day, as in “Aardvark caught four trout down at the lake. It’s a red letter day!”

It’s a red letter day, too: the new set of science textbooks has finally arrived. This may not seem much to you but I feel like bringing in champagne to celebrate or asking the Head for a half day’s holiday. -- Frank Chalk, “It’s Your Time You’re Wasting

We use this phrase because special days have been written in red on calendars going all the way back to the Roman Republic. Later, special days such as saints’ days were written in red on early Christian calendars, and today secular holidays are also sometimes printed in red on calendars. It’s all about the calendars!

Red Herring

A red herring is a type of fallacy, in which someone tries to throw you off the scent by providing false clues. Mystery novels are rife with red herrings to keep the true culprit from being so obvious that it spoils the fun, and in more serious arguments, debaters use red herrings to distract an opponent or the audience from the real point at hand.

The name comes from the actual fish. When herring is cured, it turns red and it’s quite smelly. Also, wealthier people would eat fresh fish while poorer people would eat the cured fish. Calling a misdirection a red herring likely comes from fugitives in the 1600s using the smelly cured fish to mask their scent and throw off bloodhounds that were chasing them.


And if they didn’t distract the dogs with red herrings, would the fugitives have been caught “red-handed”?

Today, you can talk about catching a person doing almost anything red-handed.

Squiggly stole the cookies. I caught him red-handed!

It means you caught someone in the act of doing the crime or that the guilt is obvious, but originally it meant specifically catching a murderer with blood on his hands, which is a very literal sense for “red-handed.” It’s only more recently that it’s taken on a more metaphorical meaning.

It goes back to Scottish law in the 1400s and the shorter term “red hand.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a clearly guilty criminal was said to have been taken “with red hand,” and someone who wasn’t so obviously guilty could be said to have been taken “without red hand.”

Paint the Town Red

If those Scots were eventually released from jail, they might be tempted to celebrate and paint the town red.

The phrase “paint the town red” means something along the lines of “to go out and have a fabulous time,” often with the idea of excess. Although nobody seems to be sure, it might go back to the exploits of a man known as the Mad Marquis (officially the Marquis of Waterford), who went on a rampage with a group of buddies in 1837 and doused a town in Leicestershire with red paint. But according to a site I trust called Phrase Finder, “paint the town red” didn’t appear in print until about 50 years later in New York, so although the Mad Marquis and his antics make a great story, it’s hard to imagine that they’re the origin of the phrase.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “paint” used to be British slang that meant “to drink” and it specifically alluded to your face turning red when you drink--you’d go paint your face red by drinking--and since painting the town red often involves drinking, there could be a connection. The timing is about right too because “paint” seemed to be used in this way from the mid-to-late 1800s,  and that’s when “paint the town red” appeared, but it also seems like a stretch since “paint” was British slang, but “paint the town red” seemed to come from the United States.

Other theories are that it comes from the Wild West where cowboys would threaten to kill people and essentially paint the town red with their blood, or that it comes from the idea of people celebrating around bonfires that seemed to paint the sky red.


Finally, I think of a rubric as a grading guideline, but it’s also a word that comes up whenever you’re researching the color red.

“Rubric” comes from the Latin word for “red ochre” because originally, in the 1400s, a rubric was a set of instructions for conducting a church service which was written in red.

Later, “rubric” took on a secular meaning. Headings for laws and book chapters in manuscripts were written in red and called “rubrics,” and “rubric” came to mean any set of official rules or instructions.

The state provides a rubric for teachers to guide them about when to give a student a point for reaching certain thresholds in their answers. — Barbara Martinez and Tom McGinty writing for “The Wall Street Journal”

As long-time listeners may remember from the colors episode last year, after black and white, red is the first color that almost all languages gave a name. It’s the color of blood, passion, danger, hunger, and more; and it’s also the source of many wonderful idioms.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.