What makes “white papers” white?: Frequent Questions

Q: Why are they called “white papers”?

A: Blame Winston Churchill.

Clients love them, and I’ve written several. But inevitably someone will ask, Why a “white paper”?

It’s a fair question. I mean, any visitor to Staples can see we have a veritable rainbow of paper colors to choose from. Still, unless you’re promoting a bake sale or a PTA meeting, chances are you’ll never buy a package of non-white paper.

And, anyway, as the world goes digital will the “paper” half of that phrase become as inscrutable as the “white” part is to us?

But I digress. Let’s get back to blaming Winston Churchill.

White versus Blue

Wikipedia tells me that the phrase may have entered popular discourse courtesy of a page-turner written when Winston Churchill was serving as Foreign Secretary of Great Britain. The actual title of this historic document was (try to stay awake): British White Paper of June 1922.

Despite its plain brown wrapper of a title, the paper was—and remains—a controversial moment in Middle Eastern diplomacy. But that’s for someone else to blog about. Why did they call it a “white paper”?

The reason is so simple, dear readers, that I fear you’ll think I’m mocking you. They called it a white paper because it was not blue.

Most government communications arrived in “blue books.” Presumably a higher-end version of the blue book than the ones I used for exam answers in high school and college, but blue books nonetheless.

White papers serve a specific purpose

Like many things in our language, we have co-opted and corrupted the meaning of the phrase “white paper.” It originally referred only to government communications; one pair of Canadian researchers described white papers as a

“… tool of participatory democracy … not [an] unalterable policy commitment.”

This “tool of participatory democracy” has now become a tool of participatory capitalism, as businesses issue white papers that are little more than overly wordy brochures, often with—gasp!—no photographs! And with footnotes; can’t forget the footnotes—at least all in the white papers I’ve written.

The delightful Wikipedia entry on the subject ends its first paragraph by introducing yet another color:

“White papers may be considered grey literature.”

Grey literature? I  had honestly never heard that phrase before. Yet apparently it’s—well, it’s what I’ve spent my career producing. Go figure.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that another day. Maybe we can go right around the color wheel of writing.

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