A NY Times essay by John F. Burns (in today’s “Week in Review” section) includes the following sentence/paragraph:

Before the court, at that instant, 25 years almost to the week after he seized power in Baghdad, stood Saddam Hussein al-Majid al-Tikriti, the man who awarded himself titles of honor and glory to fill a foolscap page; the man who launched, or in some measure provoked, three disastrous wars; the man whose legacy runs to countless mass graves, and to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, his very name synonymous, across much of the world, with a totalitarianism that turned the Iraqi state into a machinery of torture and death.

Now, that’s quite a parade of indignant rhetoric, but what caught my attention was foolscap and the phrase that contains it: “…who awarded himself titles of honor and glory to fill a foolscap page.” To me, this means unequivocally that he awarded himself those titles in order to fill up a literal foolscap page, a “long folio writing- or printing-paper” in the words of the OED, which seems improbable, on grounds of both motivation and culture (do they really use foolscap in Iraq?). I suppose you can make the assumption that he meant to write (or did write, and was betrayed by editorial or typographical gremlins) “enough titles… to fill a foolscap page,” but still, why foolscap? I can only conclude that Saddam’s record of war, butchery, and torture wasn’t enough for Burns, who felt he had to get a little dig in by implying the man was a fool to boot. I would remind him that a telling restraint is generally more powerful than scattershot (and purely etymological) insults.

In case you’re wondering, yes, foolscap (the paper) is derived from the fool’s headgear; the OED’s definition 2 is “The device of a ‘fool’s cap’ used as a watermark for paper,” and definition 3 (the “long folio” one quoted above) goes on to say “A document of 1714, shown to us by Mr. R. B. Prosser, is written on paper bearing the fool’s cap watermark.”


  1. joe tomei says

    Interesting. I had a notion that “foolscap” was paper that was of poor quality, normally not used for writing, but fibrous enough to be used for printing. Obviously, the definitions don’t hint at this, so I’m wondering if this is like assuming that ‘livid’ means ‘turn red’. Some google hits for “written on foolscap” suggest another explanation as well.
    This manuscript, which I have examined at Leipzig, is written on foolscap paper, rather rough and yellow; it is written on both sides of the page
    It could also be a reference to writing on every available space
    a href=””>No envelopes were in use then; letters were written on foolscap and made as long as possible, covering all the availafle space, leaving only room enough for the address, when the sheet was folded and sealed with red wax or a wafer.
    A lot of the links include the notion that whoever was writing on foolscap had a lot of things to say, with the implicit notion that they would probably be better left unsaid, such as aspiring authors or overwrought letter writers. Could this be what Burns is getting at?
    OT, googling this turned up this blog
    which is blog by an Indian marketing manager from Kerala who lives in Bangalore.

  2. dungbeattle says

    FOOLSCAP.s/b fools-cap? may be thescribe was trying to remember a line from the Bard, and was havein a hard time with his carrot.

  3. In my neck of the woods (New Zealand) foolscap is an obsolete but standard paper size, about the same width as A4 but rather longer. Thus to me the expression simply conveys the idea that the list is a lengthy one.
    See here.
    I also understood that the name comes from the watermark used by the original papermill who popularised the size; a cap with three bells.

  4. PS: I clearly recall being able to buy foolscap sized paper. I’m 34, and we metricated in 1979.

  5. In grade school in Canada we made quite a bit of use of foolscap sized paper. If I remember correctly, it was 8.5″ x 14″, rather than the standard 8.5″x11″ Letter sized paper used in North America. As far as I knew, it was a synonym for “Legal” sized paper, with the latter term being more common in the United States.

  6. I can’t think of or find a suitable Shakespearian quotation, but I can read that ‘to’ in the way intended, as a rhetorical archaism: ‘a pearl to win a princess’, ‘a jewel to buy a kingdom with’. The sense is like ‘such a… as would…’. It’s sense group B.II. in the OED but none of the quotations (in the Shorter) quite fits this. However, I find it reasonable and could use it myself in a similarly rhetorical mood.
    Foolscap also conveys inky schoolboy fingers labouring to fill the page. It takes us back to when we used foolscap, and what we enjoyed doing with it. I probably filled the odd foolscap page with titles myself.

  7. To me up until a few years ago foolscap was archaic and British, perhaps used by Bob Cratchit in Dickens, and was pronounced fool-scap with an “s” instead of a “z”.
    So it just means “legal-size”? That DOES give the impression of a very wordy, obsessive first draft.

  8. Yes, the “legal-size” matchup does convey better (to these American ears) what apparently was the intended meaning. And NW, if the construction sounds OK to you, I’ll withdraw my accusation of ill usage; one man’s gremlin is another man’s idiom.

  9. I also went to grade school in Canada (in the early eighties), and we used foolscap a great deal. On a North American tongue, it tends to sound more like “fullscap”, and the confusion was compounded by the fact that our teachers usually called the size of paper produced by cutting a piece of foolscap in two width-wise “half-scap”.

  10. My Engineer Battalion, as part of a fair-sized Task Force, occupied part of a twelve story office building once part of the Baathist beaurocracy. This was located in a district which included other Departments, including some police and military branches, the “Olympic Village,” and the Ministry of Oil. One of their offices was the Bureau of Information, or something near to that in translation.
    Anyway, for some weeks, until the vast amount of office debris was finally cleared away, with the help of workers from the al-Sadr neighborhood, many of us were able to pick through the office trash, including old typewriters, documents both typed and hand-written, personal effects, potted plants, and so forth. I do not remember coming across anything ressembling the above descriptions of foolscap.
    Much of their paper was thin, rice-paper quality, or otherwise standard 8 1/2 x 11 inches that we find in this country, or maybe smaller dimensions. Sometimes the cross-hatch paper that students in the Third World and Europe use for trigonometry, geometry, etc. I didn’t come across anything like legal size, as far as I can recall.
    I too, am somewhat puzzled by the author’s use of the word foolscap. It doesn’t really seem appropriate in light of what I saw in that office building.

  11. Just a wild guess: may be the word appeared in author’s mind in association with legal terms, since the article’s topic seems to be the court proceedings? (I didn’t read full text since I find better uses for my money than NYT subscription)
    LH: thanks for this entry and for bringing the word to our (mine, really)attention. I have been reading The artist’s wife by Max Phillips and I came across this sentence (in paragraph describing relationship between Mahler and NY Philarmonic Society):
    ” …Chief Conductor authority would be circumscribed. A Program Committee would select the music. It was all freshly written out on sheets of yellow foolscap….”
    Now I don’t need to look it up, what a time-saver!
    ( On the other hand, it took me twice the time to read this thread than I’d employ turning the pages of dictionary…)

  12. But this is so much more fun!

  13. scarabaeus stercus says

    I would like ream of quarto Imperial etc.: Foolscap is 16 x 13 inches from the dict.[it appears to be at odds with the Paper industry
    i.e. in error] but from:
    one gets Foolscap [not fools-cap]Foolscap is 27 x 34 inches: Quarto is of course quarter of the large sheet, for quarto foolscap , it be 6 5/8 x 8 1/4inches, then there be octavio[foolscap] at 4 1/8 x 6 1/2 inches
    ’tis why cards don’t fit those odd envelopes. The standard was being forced by the Typewriter now the computer printer. before it was set by the rag trade.

  14. Jeremiah says

    Funny. I’ve always known that foolscap was a paper size and I’ve always known it’s dimensions, or what I thought it’s dimensions were anyway. I was always under the impression that it was an American measure, don’t know why. I’m Australian and somewhat pre-disposed to think of strange measures as being American rather than British.
    I think making paper-aeroplanes first introduced to the world of paper formats and dimensions. Certainly all the way through school here it was standard A5, A4 & A3 measures.

  15. Steve Taylor says

    Just stumbled over the ‘foolscap’ comment, some months after you wrote it. It seems quite unexceptional to me – growing up in Australia, it was simply one of the standard paper sizes. I’m more likely to use A4 these days, I guess, but certainyl don’t find the term exotic.

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