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Take a Word…. Paper: Etymology; Definition; Idioms and Phrases; Varieties and Uses; Poem

Ann likes to research the history of words, to experiment with them and to encourage others to use fresh words and idioms.



The Middle English word comes from Anglo-Norman French ‘papir’, from the Latin ‘papyrus’ meaning ‘paper reed’, which in turn comes from the Greek ‘papuros’, the word for the Cyperus papyrus plant. The verb dates from the late 16th century.

Paper, Paper Everywhere!

Desk Piled with Papers!

Desk Piled with Papers!



  • material manufactured in thin sheets from the pulp of wood or other fibrous substances, used for writing, drawing, or printing on, or as wrapping material (papyrus is from natural plant fibres, whilst paper is manufactured from fibres whose properties have been changed by maceration)

  • wallpaper; rolls of paper to cut to size
  • newspaper; national or local paper
  • personal papers - documents, certificates, forms, diaries, legal papers
  • paperwork - records of all kinds (bank, insurance, historical, family….)
  • papers - identity purposes, credentials (papers/documents when travelling)
  • government report or policy document (a cabinet paper)
  • on paper - something officially documented but has no real existence (money in bank / profit & loss)
  • (British) - a set of examination questions to be answered at one session; e.g. ‘It was a two-hour paper.’ Also applies to the answers - ‘mark the papers’.
  • essay or dissertation, read at an academic lecture, seminar, or published in an academic journal (She published a landmark paper.)
  • theatrical slang - free passes of admission to a theatre or other entertainment


  • applies wallpaper to a wall/room - decorates the room
  • paper over - cover a hole or blemish with wallpaper; also as a metaphor, to disguise a problem or lie
  • theatrical slang - fill a theatre by giving out free tickets

How Much Paper is in Your Life?

At first glance this word is almost boring, a blank sheet, but paper applies to so many everyday things. We use it without thinking, without appreciating it, even without conserving its existence. It’s what’s on it that holds the mind and conveys mood, importance or flippancy.

Emails and e-cards have replaced paper in a big way and much time is saved by instant communication via the internet. Remember how long letters used to take to arrive and then the long wait for a reply?

However, I still love to pick up pen and paper to write something, usually in a birthday or Christmas card and always with my italic pen. Greetings cards and postcards still survive.

Of course we must be careful with paper use, take part in saving what's left of our forests. We can do our bit by trying to have paperless bank statements or bills but then what happens when the computers are down? That can be problematic when we need to refer, to provide proof or just to keep track of our transactions.

Many of us enjoy reading the papers, though these days I’d sooner use them for packing or storing ornaments as I get little pleasure out of reading the news.

Be it ‘paper’ or ‘papers’, these words are used in many ways every day.


Here I sit, my desk strewn with papers, overflowing to the floor; a veritable forest. Personal documents, bank statements, house deeds, Christmas and birthday cards, all waiting to be filed, binned or added to 'pending', always the highest column.

You see, I’ve just moved house. I need my desk and office in order to produce tomorrow’s best seller out of proper paper (remember books?) or the next piece of art to stun the Tate Gallery. A little far-fetched, you say? What’s wrong with ambition? It might look good on paper but will it be worth anything?

Books, newspaper cuttings, a few comics, all have their place on my book shelves, catalogued into fiction, non-fiction and subject. No problem.

I have all kinds of artists’ materials; plain and lined paper, textured paper for pastels, tissue paper, glossy photo paper. There is notepaper to capture ideas that run through my head before they disappear out the other side. Packs of paper in all sizes, all in order, stacked for use.

It’s the used pieces I can’t cope with.

Keep or Bin?

I don’t enjoy paperwork. I look at it, make a mental note to deal with one pile at a time, then with paper thin logic I tackle something more urgent.

Yes, it’s satisfying to have a clear desk. Yes, I shall feel smug when I have one. Still, here I sit, wondering whether it would be quicker and easier to shred it and have a paper-chase with my grandchildren; much more enjoyable. They could learn origami and make paper aeroplanes; educational and more fun.

Then I panic. What if I throw away an important paper, like a note or card of sentimental value? What if I miss an antique parchment? I know I should be more ruthless but you trying telling Ruth that. I just can’t.

New files for each sheet of paper, dividers and paper-punch at the ready, I go for it.

If, When, It's Sorted...

When the desk is sorted and I can to see my floor again, I shall pick up pen and paper, well ok, keyboard and screen, and start creating.

I might already have a draft copy from a night-time need to jot down my thoughts on paper. It might not be worth the paper it’s written on but I can try!

You never know, my work might make the papers one day. Whether for good or bad is another thing but one can hope.

Paper Around the House

Archives and important information have long been recorded on paper; hand-written, typed or photocopied. Parchment from ancient times gives us a rolled up history of the world.

Certificates, diplomas and qualifications are awarded on such elegant pieces of paper, often displaying italic writing, matching the importance of what they stand for. I don’t display them but they are there for proof of education and ability or just to remind myself that I was academic once!

In the average house paper has various uses:

  • lining paper can protect the contents of drawers.
  • for DIY, a much more practical use of lining paper is to help hide any cracks before applying a decorative wallpaper (I don't do that, it tends to end up on my head!).
  • you’ll have toilet paper in the relevant little rooms of the house.
  • most of us store wrapping paper for Christmas and birthdays, in a wide choice of designs; sparkly, subdued or striped, covered in balloons or unicorns.
  • if you like sweets, you will have handled hundreds of toffee papers. Even though they're often plastic now, we still refer to them as ‘papers’.
  • in the kitchen drawer hides a roll of greaseproof paper, just in case I get that urge to make some Christmas puddings.
  • also in the kitchen, that essential scribbling block of hanging glossy paper sheets, the calendar. Now that I have trouble remembering what day it is, it will tell me at a glance. When I can’t remember what time I’m due somewhere, I have my faithful friend to tell me; that is as long as I remember to jot it down in the first place.

Here's the Crunch: The Diary

Diaries, to me, feel more personal when hand-written, hence big sheets of paper, one for each day and each should have a key. Personal thoughts that could offend others, or even be used as blackmail, need to be locked away.

If you get behind in recording each day, then paper-pushing reaches another level and they all have to be stored somewhere. So guess what? I rarely keep a diary. If I did, I would need a new room. Notes on scraps of paper here and there are already bad enough.

Rare hand-written holiday scribbles on paper do exist and I do keep special, typed diaries on computer, about and for my grandchildren.

Instead, photos are my instant memories at a glance. No paper involved, though I can always print some if I wish.


Out of the house, despite the marvellous GPS, we still use maps as back-up. I like to know that the sat-nav is not having a nap. Essential, beautifully drawn roads and countryside on thick paper with fascinating symbols that are works of art in themselves, maps should never be left behind on any journey. Satellites aren’t fool-proof, signals leave us in the middle of fields and ‘Jane’ doesn’t always know where she’s going. Anyway, I love reading maps, am good at it and I like to show off; a by-product of my rallying days - the map-reading that is, not the showing off. I’m rambling.

Large notices in windows or on billboards used to be paper applied with glue, though are usually plastic these days. Even those are changing to computerised, flashing screens in order to demand attention for a product or an event, saving paper in the process.

Road Maps

Beautiful Topography, Showing the Way

Beautiful Topography, Showing the Way

Money, money, money!

Paper money is fast disappearing. We used to have a £1 note; that’s long gone. We had paper £5 and £10 notes; they are now plastic and impossible to fold! No doubt there will soon be no paper money at all.

Apparently, fewer and fewer people use cash anyway but I like my old-fashioned notes. We keep a sample of each one for posterity.

Paper Money

Old-fashioned Paper Money

Old-fashioned Paper Money

Paper Trail

Leaving a paper trail all round the world,

I’d still have enough left a thousand times furled.

I need some to paper all over the cracks

of things I have done, my mistakes, all I lack.

Sometimes I think I’m a fool, stupid wag,

who can’t find her way out of a paper bag.

Bring back those paper bags I often say,

instead of that plastic which will not decay,

which causes such problems for sea-life and fauna.

We must see what’s looming just round the corner.

We wear paper hats from crackers at Christmas.

I feel like a paper hat (prat) too, let’s miss this.

Maybe I’ll bring out a government white paper,

giving some info, propose a clever caper.

Maybe an MP will take note and convert it

to a green paper, report and discuss a bit.

Maybe I should take a risk, like Guy Fawkes,

light the blue touch paper ’n' wait for results.

Jack and Jill went up the hill, what a caper!

Then Jack needed bed, vinegar and brown paper.

I’ll just be a paper-pusher in an office somewhere

before I’m given my marching papers, beware!

Those big wigs think they can boss you about,

they think they can tell you to immediately get out.

But no, they’re a bunch of sad old paper tigers,

they can’t do a thing but prop bars and drink lagers.

I’ll just leave a message on somebody’s door,

saying I’ve gone for a walk, on a tour.

I’ll just jot a message in brilliant red pen,

stick it on my manager’s desk and then..

I’ll roll all those papers into a tight ball

and kick them and throw them away down the hall,

chuck them in a bin, change a few sheets around

so that no one can make head nor tail when they’re found!

Well I need a drink after all this creating,

my papier-mâché mug’s due for excavating.

Bring Back Paper Bags!

Trusty Paper Bag

Trusty Paper Bag

Paper Weight

A paper weight is both practical and artistic. It can be of wood, plastic, metal or glass, the latter being some of the prettiest I have seen.

Paper weights defy draughts, downing to the desk a wayward sheet of paper. They decorate your workplace or your shelves, some are collectors' pieces or any compact, heavy object can become one in an instant.

I was given a piece of Caithness Glass when my parents returned from a trip to Scotland. Domed, heavy and containing glass-blown patterns within, it sits on a shelf, only occasionally performing the task for which it was intended. Apart from being a work of art, both my parents touched it and thus it becomes a personal piece close to my heart.

Light the Blue Touch Paper

This saying means to set someone or something off, so causing anger or excitement. It comes originally from a strip of paper impregnated with nitre (saltpetre), a mineral form of potassium nitrate, for setting light to fireworks or explosives.

So if you want to cause a stir, light the blue touch paper (say something controversial) and stand well back!

Blue Touch Paper

Light the Blue Touch Paper and Stand Back!

Light the Blue Touch Paper and Stand Back!

Rock, Paper, Scissors

Many of you will know this children’s game, used to decide an argument or determine whose turn it is to do something. I call it a children’s game but I’ve seen many an adult use it!

To symbolise the rock, you make a fist of one hand: this beats scissors as rock can blunt scissors.

For the paper, you hold your hand out flat, palm down: this beats rock as the paper can wrap around the rock.

For scissors, you place your index and middle fingers in an open scissor shape, your thumb holding down the other two fingers: this beats paper as scissors can cut paper.

A handy way to solve a problem, if you'll pardon the pun.

Paper Beats Rock!

Rock, Paper, Scissors: a Decider Game

Rock, Paper, Scissors: a Decider Game

The Best Bits of Paper?

  • archives of when my grandparents were in the war, later family documents etc
  • my father’s writing, stories and plays and some of his diaries
  • drawings and paintings done for me by my children and grandchildren
  • letters from a dear one long ago, like my grandmother’s
  • photos of family members, then and now, who are and have been the fabric of my existence

Family History on Paper

Family Documents

Family Documents

Birthday Book Information

Birthday Book Information


Do you cut down on paper?

© 2018 Ann Carr

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