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Boilerplate

Q From Dodi Schultz: A member of the CompuServe Journalism Forum has been brooding about the word boilerplate, often mentioned in discussions of contracts. We all know what it means — but why? ‘How,’ he asks, ‘did boiler and plate get combined to mean something which resembles neither?’ 

A

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, news agencies and syndicates in the United States would regularly send out material to the many small-town papers across the country. To make it as simple to use as possible, the text was supplied ready to typeset on matrices (commonly abbreviated to mats), squeezed paper moulds created by stereotyping, from which type could be cast locally. All the printer had to do was slot it into the right place on the page, often first cutting the mould with scissors in a brutally crude form of editing to fit the text to the space.

A possible plausible origin was described by Richard Weiner in his Webster’s New World Dictionary of Media Communications: “Many newspaper syndicates started in Chicago, including the American Press Association, which was founded in 1892 in the same building as a sheet-iron factory. Chicago printers dubbed the noisy American Press offices a boilerplate factory”.

The problem with the story is that the expression is known earlier. Here’s an example from November 1889, in the Sandusky Daily Register of Ohio: “Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans present paid the slightest attention to the senseless charges of the Democratic organ that the society has been run in the interest of the Republican party. The influence of that sheet does not extend beyond the walls of the building in which its boiler plates are sent to press.”

It is more likely that these pre-formed slabs of text reminded editors and printers of the standard-sized metal plates that were supplied by iron foundries to riveters constructing steam boilers.

Because the syndicated material was often third-rate filler stuff, or semi-disguised advertising puffs, boilerplate quickly came to mean hackneyed or unoriginal writing, a meaning very close to that of stereotype itself. The writer in the Sandusky Daily Register is implying that the unnamed Democratic newspaper is full of such uninspiring stuff.

The same term was taken over later by the legal profession to refer to the standard clauses in a contract, which didn’t change often and which could similarly be slotted into place in the text as needed. As early as 1954, the practice was being condemned (in an article in the Bedford Gazette): “Written into the law is a section designed to put an end to what Schnader described as ‘the all too prevalent practice of including in fine print of “boiler plate” in contract forms, terms waiving or modifying fundamental provisions of statutory law which would otherwise govern the transaction.’”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 25 Nov. 2000
Last updated 11 May 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 11 May 2005.