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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's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

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
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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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