Reeds, shoots & leaves: a short story on paper

Did you know when you write on paper, you are writing on leaves?

Yep, it’s in the history of our language.

Our story starts a few thousand years ago.  Our ancestors in what are now North Africa and the Middle East wrote on clay tablets.  It was presumably cheap and fairly permanent, but not terribly portable.  Every book created in such a manner is a hardcover.  Very hardcover.  Imagine trying to fit the Old Testament into your camel bags when every page is inch-thick rock.

The Egyptians decided there had to be a better way.  They figured out how to turn papyrus reeds into paper.  In fact, that’s literally where “paper” comes from: “paper” comes from the French “papier”, which comes from the Latin “papyrus”, which comes from… um… papyrus.

In the meanwhile, Buddhist monks figured out how to write on dried palm leaves.  In fact, some anthropologists think the paper caused them to use rounded letters, because angled letters tore the paper.

That’s interesting, don’t you think?  Sumerian cuneiform writing was mostly lines and angles, probably because it was too hard to make curves in clay.  As people started using flattened papyrus reeds and palm leaves, they added curves in their writing so they wouldn’t tear their new paper.

So that means the writing medium directly influences the alphabet of a culture.

And it’s still happening.  Remember PalmPilots and their own funky alphabet?  It was called Graffiti, and they needed it to make use of the new medium.

Graffiti is perhaps a poor example because it died with the PalmPilot, but in the age of text and email we introduced emoticons.  This is because our new electronic media is devoid of emotion.

Back in the days when we actually talked to people, we could tell from their tone or facial expression whether they were joking.  Now, in a text or email, we can’t.  Thus we invented emoticons, so you can still insult your friends and family then tack on a smiley so they know you didn’t mean it.  You jerk.  🙂

Getting back to leaves… the French word for a sheet of paper is “feuille“, which is the same word they use for “leaf”.  It comes from the Latin “folia”, from which we also get the English word “foliage”.

And in English, a sheet of paper is also called a “page“.  The word “page” comes from the French word “pagene” or “pagne”, which comes from the Latin “pagina” which means the surface of a leaf, shoot, or a flattened twig.

So that word “page” brings us back to the beginning of this, when I was talking about papyrus reeds and palm leaves.  (You thought I was lost, didn’t you?)

In case you were wondering, the English word “sheet” comes from the Saxon branch of the language.  It just means a covering or a flat surface.  Nothing exciting there.

Note that some people were also writing on tree bark, especially birch bark.  In fact, the term “codex” which used to mean book (and sometimes still does) comes from Latin “caudex”, meaning “bark”.  That is another leaf reference, sort of.

To complete this historical picture: besides paper, European monks also used parchment.  This is the skin of a lamb, goat, pig, deer, or calf, which is stretched and treated to make a clean and durable writing surface.  In the case of calfskin, it was also called “vellum” which comes from the French “veau”, from which we also get “veal”.

Returning again to leaves… the English word leaf references paper in two ways:

  1. a leaf is a single sheet of a paper with two sides, such as you would find in a book, magazine, or newspaper.  It comes from medieval bookbinding methods, when monks would lay four sheets of parchment on top of each other, then fold them over to make eight leaves.  Since each leaf had two sides, that gave them sixteen pages.  This was called a quire, for “four”, and later called a gathering or a signature.  They painstakingly filled the pages of each gathering with medieval stuff, then bound all the gatherings together into a book.  As they replaced parchment with paper, they could fit more than eight leaves in a gathering, but the principle of binding leaves into gatherings and gatherings into books is still used today.
  2. to leaf through a book, magazine, or newspaper is to skim it by quickly turning over pages.  I assume this is simply verb-alizing the noun in #1.


What about collective nouns?

Well, we call a handful of paper a “sheaf”, and we buy it in reams.

Sheaf also comes from the Saxon branch of English, as a bundle of grain or straw.  That ties into papyrus, a bit.

Ream, however, comes to us through French and Spanish, originally from Moorish Arabic for “collect into a bundle”.  It was around 480 pages, but varied all over the place.  There is an international standard ream now, which is exactly 500 pages, but apparently reams of a little less and a little more are still around.

So the next time you come home from Staples with a fresh ream of paper, before you pull out a sheaf and stick it into your printer, give a thought to its five thousand year history and all those monks that came before you.  Scribing, illuminating, and bookbinding was high art — something a laptop and printer will never replace.


About Chris Weaver

Posted on 01/19/2013, in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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