The Grammarphobia Blog

When writing is ‘boilerplate’

Q: Why are standard clauses in contracts and stock phrases in speeches called “boilerplate”? I can’t see what this usage has to do with boilers or plates.

A: When “boilerplate” first appeared in mid-19th-century English, it referred literally to the rolled iron plates used to make steam boilers.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from an 1860 history of coal mining and iron making by William Fordyce:

“The Staffordshire iron-masters enjoyed almost exclusively the advantages conferred by the rolling-mill in the production of various descriptions of Iron, such as nail-rods, boiler-plates, hoop and sheet iron, wire &c.”

And this example is from Ure’s Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines (1875), by Robert Hunt and Frederick William Rudler:

“Boiler Plate: ‘Sheets of iron used for making boilers, and now largely employed for constructing railway bridges, ships, tanks, &c.’ ” The OED uses a different example from Ure’s Dictionary.

In the late 19th century, according to Oxford citations, the term “boilerplate” also took on the sense of “syndicated matter issued to the newspaper press.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an Aug. 18, 1893, item in the Congressional Record about the use of political handouts as news: The country weeklies have been sent tons of ‘boiler plates’ accompanied by … letters asking the editors to use the matter as news.”

But we’ve found several earlier examples. In the two earliest, an Arizona newspaper, the Daily Tombstone, calls a competing paper “the ‘boiler plate’ ” because of its reliance on syndicated material.

In its April 10, 1885, issue, the Tombstone says, “The vandal who edits the ‘boiler plate’ around the corner … uses the columns … to vent his spleen upon the Irish, and continues to do so in every issue.”

And in its April 23, 1885, issue, the Tombstone says, “The ‘boiler plate’ this morning uses language … which is unfit for publication, let alone to go into families where there are young children.”

We also found this example from the July 19, 1888, issue of the Stark County Democrat in Canton, OH: “It is conceded that our esteemed evening contemporary is printed largely from boiler plate matter, and not from type set up by home labor in the home office.”

So why was syndicated news copy referred to as “boilerplate”?

As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, “The syndicates delivered that copy on metal plates with the type already in place so the local papers wouldn’t have to set it. Printers apparently dubbed those syndicated plates boiler plates because of their resemblance to the plating used in making steam boilers.”

“Soon boilerplate came to refer to the printed material on the plates as well as to the plates themselves,” M-W adds. “Because boilerplate stories were more often filler than hard news, the word acquired negative connotations and gained another sense widely used today: ‘hackneyed or unoriginal writing.’ ”

In our research, we came across an interesting description of boilerplate editing in the 19th century:

“In these days of ‘boiler plate’ most of the editing … is done with an axe and a saw. The ‘plate’ matter is cut so as to fill whatever space is allotted to it, and after that is done the paper is ready for the press.” (From the Oct. 20, 1894, issue of Our Paper, the newspaper at a reformatory in Concord Junction, MA.)

It’s hard to tell exactly when the term “boilerplate” came to mean formulaic writing. Many of the examples we’ve seen in searches of digitized books and newspapers could be using the term for either syndicated material or formulaic writing.

The earliest definite example that we’ve found is from Influencing Human Behavior, a 1925 book by the American writer and lecturer Harry Allen Overstreet: “The inveterate cliché-ist is apt to be the inveterate platitudinarian. He is animated boiler plate.”

Finally, the use of “boilerplate” for standard legal clauses apparently showed up in the second half of the 20th century. We haven’t seen an earlier legal example than this expanded OED citation from Doll, a 1965 novel in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series of police procedurals:

“The rest of the will was boilerplate. Meyer scanned it quickly, and then turned to the last page where Tinka had signed her name.”

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