Cut Through the Red Tape With These Bureaucratic Idioms Explained

2 min read

When you think of bureaucracy, what comes to mind? Inefficient regulations? Archaic rules? Impersonal policies? Most modern bureaucracy has a negative connotation, but the idioms and language used to discuss it is more often satirical. Whether you’re checking with “the powers that be,” or doing everything “by the book,” many of these ubiquitous idioms spoof the rigid ways of doing business.

Red Tape

People refer to excessive bureaucracy or official routines that cause slowdowns as “red tape,” and most folks would like to slice right through this stuff. The saying goes back to the 16th century when documents were bound in red strips of material to show they should be given immediate attention. But, by the 17th century, red tape no longer guaranteed speedy service. In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens wrote satirically of England, “bound hand and foot with red tape.”  

The Powers That Be

Whether you’re talking about the government, upper management, or the board of directors, these are the folks in charge who decide what’s allowed. This idiom comes right from the Bible. In Romans 13:1, the Apostle Paul discusses who has authority on Earth and says, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: The powers that be are ordained of God."

Pink Slip

If your boss hands you a “pink slip,” it means you’re terminated. There’s a legend that Henry Ford started the practice of a pink slip notice with a final paycheck, but it appears to be apocryphal. A Smithsonian Museum curator even made it a pet project to find the source of “pink slips,” but he has never seen an actual pink slip, or been able to find a company that used them. In truth, firing workers via glorified Post-It is probably too much, even for the most ruthlessly efficient bosses.

Passing the Buck

Otherwise known as playing the blame game, “passing the buck” means pushing responsibility onto someone or something else. This phrase might have originated from a game of poker. When it’s your turn to deal, a marker (sometimes called a “buck”) gets passed to you, but you can “pass the buck” to the next player to put off the responsibility of dealing. President Harry Truman famously kept a sign on his desk that read, “The buck stops here.” And he wasn’t bluffing.


If you see something, say something — that’s the role of a whistleblower,  who exposes illegal or unsafe practices within an organization. Activist Ralph Nader popularized this phrase in the 1970s as a positive alternative to words like “informant” or “snitch.” The saying is inspired by a police officer or referee blowing their whistle to alert a crowd to an infraction or wrongdoing.

By the Book

If you do things “by the book,” you follow the rules and regulations exactly. The “book” this idiom is referring to may be the Christian Bible, with its old-fashioned connotations. In modern usage, it can refer to any rulebook or set of regulations.

Elephant in the Room

“Seeing pink elephants” has its own connotation related to intoxication, but if you’re sitting around the conference table, the elephant is serious business. So, when you acknowledge an “elephant in the room,” you’re talking about the controversial issue or topic that everyone knows about, but no one wants to mention. Many writers have discussed this phenomenon, but one of the first was Ivan Krylov in his 1814 fable “The Inquisitive Man.” It’s about a man who goes to a museum and remarks on all the little details he sees there — except a giant elephant.

Featured photo credit: vicnt/ iStock

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