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Where Did the Term "Pink Slip" Originate?

Pink slip image via Shutterstock

The Short Answer: No one knows, but the search has been interesting.

The Long Answer: Getting a pink slip usually means you're fired. It's not something most people look forward to. Peter Liebhold, then, is an odd guy. He's been searching for a pink slip for years, and he's disappointed he keeps coming up empty.

Liebhold isn't looking to get canned. Rather, finding a pink slip is his job. He's a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and Chair of the Division of Work and Industry.

The history of business culture is his business. The pink slip is a mystery he's been chasing for a long time. Almost everyone is familiar with the phrase, but no one seems to know where it originated, or if there's an actual pink slip out there to be had.

The usual line of reasoning is that the phrase was born when one or more companies started the practice of terminating employees by giving them notice on a piece of pink paper. The color was chosen so that the notice would stand out from the rest of the paperwork on the poor guy's desk and he wouldn't miss it. The catch, of course, is that Liebhold and other historians haven't been able to track down an actual slip, or find any companies that actually fired people like this. The most they had to go on for a while was the Oxford English Dictionary citing the phrase's first known appearance in a 1915 pulp novel about baseball.

The most promising lead Liebhold ever had, he told the Baltimore Sun, was the Ford Motor Company. While poring over an obscure history journal, he found a footnote that led him to another article in another journal that talked about the daily evaluations of Ford's assembly line workers. The workers, the article went, all had lockers or cubbies where they kept their things, and at the end of the day they would find a slip of paper from management there. A white paper meant the day's effort was acceptable. A pink slip, though, meant that they weren't wanted back in the morning. 

Liebhold thought he'd finally found his elusive slip, but when he tracked down the source of the story, a California-based management consultant, he learned it was just an anecdote overheard in college. The consultant had been repeating it ever since. Neither the consultant, nor anyone at Ford who Liebhold talked to, had any evidence that the story was true.

Swing and a miss. 

Liebhold's search hasn't been in vain, though. He's found a few other bits of workplace history during the hunt, like the first American filing cabinet and some red twill that secretaries used to use to bundle documents together — apparently, the inspiration for bureaucratic "red tape."

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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