-originally published in Sudbury District Law Association August 2014 newsletter-

noun:  [ foolz-kap] An anachronistic abomination perpetuated by a professional group prone to preserving ill-considered standards.

In North America the term refers to a size of writing paper, 8 ½ inches by 14 inches, also known by the name ‘legal size’ paper. Frequently associated with a lower quality paper, yellow in colour, and supplied in pads of 50 or 100 sheets with a top edge glue.

Originally, the term foolscap referred to the lesser quality of the paper. The name derived for a common watermark with such papers, that was comprised of a court jesters cap. (For the uninitiated you’ll have to google ‘watermark’ on your own time.)

The variant we know as legal size would have originally been known as ‘foolscap folio’. Here’s how that name came to be. Foolscap was traditionally twice the size (approximate) of our legal size paper. When folded in half (the ‘folio’ part), and cut, the half sheet size was known as foolscap folio. BTW: fold it again, to get ‘foolscap quarto’, or roughly the size of a standard book page. The ‘traditional’ part is a reference to the British Imperial measurement system.

That system of paper sizes was abandoned by Great Britain some time prior to 1975 in favour of paper sizes based on International Standards Organization sizes (ISO). Those standards are used by just about all civilized societies, North America excepted.

Interestingly, the legal profession in Great Britain hung onto foolscap as its go-to paper size until well into the 1980s. Nowadays in the British Isles one has to order foolscap as a custom paper from the manufacturers.

Here in Ontario, we ought not to be concerned about modest investments in equipment and infrastructure based on the antiquated overseas measurement units.  The foolscap size, or close approximations are here for the foreseeable future. Their long run future was ensured when the Ontario government overhauled the land registration system with the guidance of Teranet a couple of decades back, and decided to retain extra long paper sheets.

This was, of course, to the delight of those suppliers of electronic printer paper trays, and photocopiers, and filing cabinets, and binding equipment and file folders, and … well you get the drift.

Gotta love the irony of the fools cap.

Michael Hennessy