foolscap

The terror of the blank page: a full landscape stretching incoherently, inchoately… awaiting the running river of your black ink. Will you make it full? Will you escape without playing the fool, the eccentric?

Does anyone even write on foolscap anymore?

Or is it just an archaism, as the word itself is an archaism, bahuvrihi – an exocentric compound – formed with terminal morphology internally?

I bet the first time you saw the word foolscap you thought maybe someone was pulling your leg. It’s fullscap, isn’t it? What kind of fool would spell it with fool? And what kind of scrap is scap, anyway? Oh, but before ever pen made river on this paper it was marked with water – a watermark in the shape of a fool’s cap, a jester hat. It was in evidence on large writing paper by the late 1600s, though who did it first is disputed.

So we’re not clowning around here. But the morphology of this word seems like more folly: when do we ever take a genitive – a possessive – and use it as the first part of a closed-up compound? If it were fool’s cap or even fool’s-cap, that would be normal. But this? It’s like writing monk’s hood as monkshood. …Which, actually, we also do: monkshood is a poisonous plant with pretty blue flowers, sort of like wolfsbane. (Oh, yes, wolfsbane.) But that’s not so normal anymore, because we’ve gotten into the habit of adding an apostrophe to possessives, and of not inflecting nouns when used as modifiers.

Anyway, whether poison pen or simply fooling around, your big piece of paper gets its name by a – now vanished – association. Just as the blank page is absent your words, so too the compound that names it does not include the noun for it; it is like lowbrow and highbrow and silver-tongued and polymath: exocentric. It could be metonymy – the paper is associated with the fool’s cap – or synecdoche – the watermark at least used to be part of the paper.

But in the end, it is you who are the fool, for this paper is not the court jester… It’s just a page.

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2 responses to “foolscap

  1. I have always assumed that the cap referred to in the word ‘foolscap’ was not the jester’s cap, a thing made presumably of cloth, but the dunce’s cap, a conical piece of headgear made from a sheet of paper. I supposed that foolscap paper was so called because it was the right size to make such an item.

  2. Pingback: binder, bind, bound | Sesquiotica

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