How many sheets of foolscap must I have disfigured in the cause of education? Nowadays, when we mostly live in that European-inspired world of boringly logical standardization based upon numbers and fractions thereof (I blame Napoléon), school children in Britain are no longer directed to write their essays on so many sides of foolscap. It’s A4 they’d use. In my schooldays foolscap meant a tall pad of white paper, around 8″ x 13″, ruled in pale blue, perhaps with a red double-lined vertical margin on the left. I suppose the word foolscap is rapidly traveling towards that fatal dictionary designation, Obsolete.

Jester’s cap watermark. National Gallery of Australia

It’s not altogether obvious why a sheet of paper slightly shorter and slightly narrower than legal size paper, should have had such a fanciful name attached to it. One theory is that paper of that size was manufactured with a watermark showing a jester’s cap (a fool’s cap), but there doesn’t seem to be evidence that sheet sizes were ever designated by watermarks. Nonetheless Keith Houston, in The Book, retells the story of the Rump Parliament’s ordering that a jester’s cap be used as a watermark on paper used by Parliament in place of the traditional royal arms. This is a neat historical joke, but does reek of back formation.

The Oxford English Dictionary will have nothing to do with it, stating in a rather lengthy aside “It has been asserted that the fool’s cap mark was introduced by Sir John Spielmann or Spilman, a German who built a paper-mill at Dartford in 1580; but we have failed to find any trustworthy authority for this statement. The Brit. Mus. copy of Rushworth’s Hist. Coll. (1659) is marked with this device. The watermark called by Sotheby ( Princ. III.) a ‘fool’s cap’, and said by him to occur in some copies of Caxton’s Golden Legend, seems not to be correctly so called. The catalogue of the Caxton Exhibition (1877) states that examples of the fool’s cap, dating from 1479, are found in a German collection there exhibited. There is no foundation for the often-repeated story that the Rump Parliament ordered a fool’s cap to be substituted for the royal arms in the watermark of the paper used for the journals of the House.”

The OED‘s earliest source for foolscap in the sense of a paper size dates from 1699, from A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, where it is defined “Fool’s-Cap, a sort of Paper so called.”

So far, so circular. The watermark idea sounds plausible, but that of course doesn’t make it true. The Oxford Companion to the Book opts, rather tepidly, for the watermark origin, adding, to complete the circularity of their argument. “it is the clearest example of a watermark being used to name a sheet size”. (Wouldn’t it actually be the only example?) The German connection hinted at above prompted me to do a bit of German research. I find no hint that they ever referred to any sort of paper in terms having anything to do with jesters’ caps.

Paper wrapper (From Paper in Printing History, Lindenmeyr Paper Corp. 1979)

For what its worth my bet is that the name — which obviously has to come from somewhere* — results from a wrapper put around sheets of paper of this sort of size and merchandised by a medieval papermaker with a jester’s cap on the label. See the wrapper in this picture: the paper it contained could easily have been called “lion”. By their very nature disposables like this very rarely survive, just as word origins for commonplace articles are infrequently recorded.

It  also seems difficult to be absolutely precise about the measurement of foolscap. I suspect that different manufacturers chopped it off at different points depending on convenience. In my size comparison with legal paper not only does the term foolscap appear to be becoming rare; legal sheets of paper seem to be at risk of disappearing. As the site informs us “Nowadays with the proliferation of cheap printers Legal paper is becoming less common as the cost of having two paper trays in a printer is significantly greater than just having one and Letter size paper is winning out when printers only have a single tray.”


* I fear that the history of British (and other) paper names is far too convoluted, extensive (and be it confessed, confusing) to be adequately covered in a blog post. The site, linked to above, makes a stab at it via the tabs in the gray bar at the top. I did have a partial go in the early days of this blog.