Claim: The term ‘pink slip’ came about because companies used to dismiss employees by distributing notices printed on pink slips of paper.
Origins: For about a century, American workers from all walks of life have lived in fear of one day receiving “pink slips” from their employers: notices (usually distributed with paychecks) informing employees that their services are no longer required.
The term ‘pink slip’ has long been symbolic rather than literal, however. Nobody can seem to remember a time when it was a common or widespread practice in the
U.S. for workers who had been laid off or fired to receive notification of their dismissals via pink slips of paper, and these days terminated employees often receive no written notification at all. This raises a question with a not-so-obvious answer: Did the term “pink slip” really come about because long ago, a company (or companies) used to dismiss employees by distributing termination of employment notices printed on pink paper?
Over the years people have offered plenty of examples of companies that supposedly used pink slips to fire their employees, but none has ever been verified. The most common explanation predictably concerns the Ford Motor Company (as Henry Ford and his business are commonly viewed as the prototype that established the modern corporate employer-employee business relationship):
The “pink slip” has come a long way from when Henry Ford dreamed up a way to evaluate his assembly line employees. Each worker had a cubbyhole where at the end of the workday, a manager would place a piece of colored paper. A white piece of paper meant their work was acceptable, a pink one meant the boot.
Peter Liebhold, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., has spent years searching for an example of an actual pink slip, but even though he and his colleagues have turned up similar artifacts (such as the red twill used to bundle documents in the 19th century, a symbol we now know as bureaucratic “red tape”), the dreaded pink slip has remained elusive.
The Oxford English Dictionary‘s oldest citation for the term “pink slip” comes from a 1904 article published in a typographical journal, with the usage suggesting that a pink slip was not itself a notice of termination, but rather a warning issued in that industry when an employee did not perform his job adequately; the accumulation of too many “pink slips” could therefore result in one’s dismissal from employment:
A revise proof to correct is regarded as a cardinal sin, for a ‘pink slip’ is charged up against the delinquent, and a certain number of these means discharge.
But if no company ever really used pink slips before “pink slip” entered the language, then where did the term come from?
Other languages have also used terms for dismissals related to colorful paperwork — Germans would “get the blue letter” (“den blauen Brief bekommen”), and the French military dismissed personnel with a “yellow paper” (“cartouche jaune”) — but perhaps the “pink slip” doesn’t have anything to do with color at all. Consider that we often use terms relating to injury or violence to describe the severing of a relationship (e.g., a fired employee has “gotten the axe,” a player who doesn’t make the team is said to have been “cut”), and that when used as a verb, “pink” means “to pierce” or “to stab” (hence the item known as “pinking shears”) or “to wound by criticism or ridicule.”
For now, “pink slip” and its cousin, the blue law, remain colorful mysteries.
Last updated: 27 April 2014
Roja, Genevieive. “Pink-Slipped.” Metro (Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper). 5 April 2001. Stroh, Michael. “Curator Asks for ‘Pink Slip.'” The Baltimore Sun 10 April 2001. The [Daytona Beach] News-Journal. “Where Did the Term ‘Pink Slip’ Come From?” 15 April 2001. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-861258-3.