Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Film at 11.

Dear Word Detective:  As a former Boilerman in the US Navy I thought that I knew everything about boiler construction. Then I found out that newspapers use boilerplate too. What the heck do they use it for? — Mike Henderson.

They use it for the Great Steel Wall between the advertising and editorial departments that keeps the news coverage free of commercial contamination. Sorry, little newspaper joke there. Speaking of intrusive advertising, I’m constantly bombarded by ad agencies suggesting that I turn certain words in my columns into clickable links to sell vacuum cleaners and the like. I’m tempted to write back and ask them if they’d like to sponsor “dirtball” or “sleazoid.” (Which I know I could work into a column because I just did.) Operators are standing by, guys.

Boilerman, eh? I must admit that I’d forgotten that modern ships (some of them, anyway) still have boilers, but then I remembered that nuclear power works by boiling water to run steam turbines, and there are a few nuke boats out there. And while most modern ships use diesel engines, many still run on turbines powered by boilers heated with coal or liquefied natural gas (especially ships that just happen to transport coal or LNG).

“Boil,” our common English verb meaning “to heat a liquid until bubbles form, rise to the top and release vapor,” has a fairly prosaic origin, coming from the Latin “bullire,” meaning “to bubble.” The noun “boil” meaning “an inflamed swelling on the skin” is unrelated to the verb, and comes from Germanic roots meaning “to swell.”

English adopted “boil” from the Old French “bolir” in the 13th century, but when the noun “boiler” appeared around 1540, it meant simply “a person who boils things.” Another 200 years and we had “boiler” meaning “a pot or vessel in which liquids are boiled,” opening the door to the wonderful world of cooking in a double-boiler. (Does anyone still use those things?) In the mid-18th century “boiler” came to mean the large vessel, usually made of heavy cast iron or steel plates welded together, in which water is heated to create pressurized steam, as in a steam-powered engine or a heating plant in a large building.

But now we turn from the steam-powered industry to one selling good old-fashioned hot air, i.e., journalism. In the Olden Days, before computerized typesetting, printing presses used “hot lead,” printing plates cast from type laboriously set line-by-line in a frame. As recently as the late 1960s, many newspapers used enormous Linotype machines on which text typed in by the operator would be set into lines of metal type to be assembled into plates for printing the paper. Parts of the paper, however, such as the masthead, statement of ownership, etc., rarely changed, and these were printed with a fixed and durable steel plate of type called a “boilerplate” from its resemblance to the heavy plated used in boiler construction. Any text supplied by advertisers or other outside sources that didn’t need to be typeset was also “boilerplate” (“He attended to the subsidizing of news agencies that supplied thousands of country papers with boiler-plate matter to fill their inside pages.” 1905).

By the late 1890s “boilerplate” had come to mean “any block of text that doesn’t need to be changed from one edition to the next.” Today we use “boilerplate” to mean “any standardized text, such as  parts of standard contracts or consumer warranties, etc., that doesn’t even have to be read closely” (although a good lawyer would say that those are the parts you should read especially carefully).

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