Dear Word Detective: I’m always fascinated by a word that evolves with two entirely different meanings. Today at work, we were discussing the word “ream,” as in a ream of paper — but this can also refer to a machining process. Since I’d presume paper-making is mechanical in nature (and I’m just guessing here; for all I know, paper really *does* grow on trees), is there any connection between the two? — Tina Stanley.
We all have our weaknesses, and a biggie for me is my lifelong inability to tell when people are goofing on me. My wife Kathy, for instance, never tires of regaling total strangers with the story of the time many years ago when she convinced me that the top of the Williamsburg Bank tower in Brooklyn is covered with green velvet. (It isn’t.) And then there’s the time, just last year, when I forwarded a parody ad for do-it-yourself home Lasik eye surgery to all my friends. I knew it was a joke, of course. After Kathy told me.
But just in case you’re serious, yes, paper does sort of “grow on trees,” in much the same way one might say hamburger “grows on” cows.
In any case, English is chock full of homonyms, words that are spelled (and often pronounced) the same but which have radically different meanings and usually entirely separate origins. “Bark,” the sound a dog makes, and “bark,” the outer layer of a tree, are spelled and pronounced exactly the same way. But they come from entirely different sources, as does “bark” meaning a type of small sailing ship. The two “reams” in your question are also utter strangers to each other, and come, in fact, from different parts of the world.
“Ream” meaning “a certain quantity of paper” (480, 500 or 516 sheets, depending on the type of “ream”) first appeared in English in the 14th century, adopted from the Old French word “remme,” which in turn was derived from the Arabic word “rizmah” meaning “bale or bundle.” The Arabic source of this “ream” makes perfect sense, since paper itself, invented in China, was introduced to Europe via the Middle East.
The other sort of “ream,” a verb meaning “to enlarge a hole or other opening,” is a much more recent addition to English, first appearing in print in the early 19th century. But “ream” was probably drawn from the earlier Old English word “ryman,” which meant “make room, enlarge,” itself based on a Germanic root word meaning “spacious.” In addition to its literal meaning in carpentry and machining metal, “to ream” has also taken on figurative meanings of “to cheat or swindle” and “to severely reprimand.”