Question: My husband and I have just returned from a vacation to Maine, or "down East." While we were there we asked several people why the region is called "down East," and not "Up East," as you would expect since it is in the north. No one seemed to know. Do you?
- A. T., Wayland, Mass.
Answer: The term "down East," an apparent misnomer applied broadly to northeast coastal United States and parts of Canada - and specifically to the coast of Maine - has been around for quite some time, dating back perhaps as far as the colonial period. Several theories of origin have been put forth and debated over the years, but none can be proved conclusively.
The coast of Maine lies to the northeast of Boston. One theory ties the origin of "down East" to the days when the majority of travel between Boston and Maine was done in sailing vessels. Because the winds were most often southwesterly, especially during the time of year when most travel took place, ships sailed downwind when sailing in a northeasterly direction. Travelers heading to Maine were thus said to be traveling "down" or "down east."
A second theory is that "down" was merely a way of implying that travel was taking place in a direction away from the hub or major metropolitan area. Early New Englanders may have talked of going "up to Boston," just as they had gone "up to London," regardless of the actual direction of travel. By extension, Bostonians would have traveled "down" to Maine.
Question: I have often heard people complain about things not getting accomplished due to too much bureaucratic "red tape." Please provide the origin of this old phrase.
- C.L., Stratford, Conn.
Answer: The term "red tape" has indeed been around for some time, appearing in print many times over the past three hundred years. But it did not always refer to excessively complex official procedures that cause delay or inaction. In fact, "red tape" originally referred to the red, ribbon-like strips of material formerly used in England to bind legal documents. Although bureaucracies can get sticky at times, this tape was not the adhesive kind; rather it was simply wrapped around the documents, tied in a knot, and often sealed with wax.
This official use of red tape is mentioned several times in English and American literature. In his introduction to "The Scarlet Letter" (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne describes an official document from colonial times, noting the "faded red tape that tied up the package." In Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" (1868), the young Amy March, after writing out her last will and testament, provides her friend with "a bit of red tape with sealing wax" and asks him to "seal it up for her properly." Thomas Hardy describes a magistrate's office as being filled with legal papers "in packets tied with red tape" in his last novel, "Jude the Obscure" (1895).
But even as "red tape" was being used in this literal sense, it was already taking on its more common, negative connotation. By the 19th century, the British legal system had gained a reputation of being frustratingly complex and slow-moving. Legal documents, typically lengthy and verbose, were material manifestations of an excessively regulated and formalized system, and the bright red ribbon that bound them came to symbolize this overwrought bureaucracy. From this association, "red tape" eventually came to refer to bureaucratic rigmarole in general.
As far back as 1736 a British baron and former member of Parliament used "red tape" in a metaphorical sense to suggest ad-her-ence to formality or routine. "Let Wilmington with grave, contracted brow," he wrote, "red tape and wisdom at the Council show." But it wasn't until the next century that "red tape" acquired the clearly negative meaning that it has today. In 1869, for example, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of being held up "all morning at the customhouse, plagued with red tape."
The traditional use of red tape to bind legal papers finally died out during the early 20th century, perhaps in part because of the negative connotations that had by then become so widely associated with the term "red tape."