In The Red – Meaning and Origin


In the red is a common phrase that means a person or business is losing money. It can also mean being in debt.

Example: Susie is in the business of selling natural home cleaning products. Unfortunately, she’s in the red this month and so she can’t afford necessary supplies. (In other words, her job did not turn a profit that month; she lost money.)

Synonyms/Related: at a loss, in debt, in dire straits, in the hole

The Origin Of ‘In The Red’

It’s believed that this phrase originates from the practice of using red ink to signify a financial loss. Thus, a business that is “in the red” is a company that is losing money.

It’s possible that the saying originated sometime during the early 1900s. The reason is because there are numerous newspapers from that time that use the phrase in reference to businesses that were functioning at a loss. For example, in the Daily Globe newspaper from the year 1927, under the subheading ‘Failed to get Interest,’ it reads:

“I regret to report to you that the people who put money into it failed by $30,000 to earn even operating expense and depreciation. The company is in the red all the time.”

Example Sentences

  • James created a furniture company knowing ahead of time that he’d be working in the red for a while. However, he hoped that business would pick up in the following months so he could start making a profit.

Note: The origins for most phrases and sayings cannot be said with a certainty. What’s provided are theories that may be plausible to how a phrase originated, but not necessarily so. 
In addition, quotes that contain a particular phrase may be taken from old newspapers, poems, or books that were written centuries ago, but this by no means confirms that the phrase originates from said newspapers, poems, or books. In all likelihood, if an expression is being used in a newspaper, it’s probably already a well known saying and is from an older time.

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