Sexual assault scandals, mass shootings, military coups, tax cuts for the rich, trophy elephants, the impending devastation of climate change, the looming threat of nuclear war—there are reams and reams of heavy news right now.
So, I think we could use something that brings us all together. Sorry, I don’t have any puppy videos, but I do have the next best thing: etymology. Let’s allow ourselves a nice, distracting break from the news with the globe-trotting roots of ream.
‘Letters’ sent from afar
Ream—a measurement of 500 sheets of paper—is one of those plain-looking, ordinary-enough words that you’d might never expect to have so many stamps on its passport.
The Oxford English Dictionary first attests in the 1482 Household Books John Duke of Norfolk and Thomas Earl of Surrey, in which the following are itemized on October 22:
At whiche tyme he browt from Sandes a fyrkyn of sope. Item, di. c. wex, ij. seuger loves weying ix. lb. x. unces : ij . lb, pepper. Item, a quartron greyns.i Item, a quatron clowes, vj. lb. reysons of coraunce, ij.lb, almondes, and half a reme paper.
Soap, wax, sugar loaves, pepper, grains, cloves, raisins, almonds—and a half a ream of paper. Originally, a half a ream would have been 240 sheets—or 10 quires of 24 pages, give or take a sheet in the historical fluctuations of paper quantification.
English borrowed ream partly from the French raime and partly from the Dutch rieme, which both were probably influenced by the Spanish resma during the Hapsburg rule of the Netherlands.
The Spanish resma, in turn, comes from the Arabic rizma, “a bale or bundle of clothes or paper,” said to be introduced by the Moors, who brought the production of paper from cotton to the peninsula. The Arabic rizma is based on the verb razama, “to collect into a bundle.” The ultimate root here would seem to be r-z-m, with some core sense of “bundling.”
The metaphorical ream—as in reams, or large quantities, of anything—emerges by the late 17th century. The remonstrative ream, like to ream someone out, is unrelated, coming from an older meaning of “to enlarge a bore or hole,” probably with an original sense of “to make room for.”
The international standard for a 500-sheet ream settles in during the 20th-century. But there used to be reams of reams, like a mill ream (472 sheets), short ream (480), stationer’s ream (504 ream), and a printer’s ream (516).
Perhaps we might understand these ream variations, though, if we remember paper is a technology that stores information—we’re just used to thinking in bundles of 8 gigabytes today.