Posted by: Jack Henry | April 11, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Red

This weekend promises to be interesting and full of colorful flowers at Art Alive, the San Diego Museum of Art exhibition where local folks create interpretations of the museum’s art out of flowers and plants; it’s pretty amazing in some cases.

In honor of the colors I will see, I am sharing a Grammar Girl article about the color red and some of the idiomatic phrases that go with it. Here are some excerpts from her article, but to read about “red herrings” and “painting the town red,” you’ll have to go here.

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 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 Letter Day

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!”

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-handed…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.”

Here are a couple of paintings as floral arrangements from the 2018 Art Alive:

Kara Church

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Symitar Documentation Services

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