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Origins: If All the World Were Paper

Howard PyleIf all the world were paper
If all the seas were ink
If all the trees
Were bread and cheese
What would we do to drink?

This rhyme constitutes the first verse of a comic poem appearing in John Mennes and James Smiths  Facetiae*, published in or after 1658:

If all the world were paper,
And all the sea were inke;
If all the trees were bread and cheese,
How should we do for drinke?

If all the world were sand’o,
Oh then what should we lack’o;
If as they say there were no clay,
How should we take tobacco?

If all our vessels ran’a,
If none but had a crack’a;
If Spanish apes ate all the grapes,
How should we do for sack’a?

If fryers had no bald pates,
Nor nuns had no dark cloysters;
If all the seas were beans and pease,
How should we do for oysters?

If there had been no projects,
Nor none that did great wrongs;
If fidlers shall turne players all,
How should we doe for songs?

If all things were eternall,
And nothing their end bringing;
If this should be then how should we
Here make an end of singing?

Iona and Peter Opie discovered a further verse to this rhyme only once, in a miscellany from 1641:

If all the World were men,
And all men lived in trenches,
If there were none but we alone
How should we doe for Wenches?

…which, well. I think we all know what I think about that.

An alternative version of the rhyme beginning with the line ‘If all the world were apple pie’ appears in Gamer Gurton’s Garland (1810).

The poem, a precursor to nonsense as a genre, poses a number of comically doom-laden questions that seem nonsensical a first glance. Yet each verse can be pared down to a clear, if unusual hypothetical and its frivolous consequence: if the earth were entirely sand, there would be no clay to make tobacco pipes; if England’s ships each wrecked or ran aground, and Spain ate the grapes it grew, there would be no sack (or sherry) in Tudor homes.

These displays of premise-conclusion arguments are often used in teaching critical thinking. Take the first verse:

  1. If all the world were paper
  2. And the sea were ink
  3. If trees were made of  bread and cheese
  4. There would be nothing to drink

Line 2 presents a premise and line 4 a conclusion (imagine the line as an exclamation rather than a question). The argument relies on an unstated premise – that without the sea there are no other sources of water. Since we know this is not true (what with the rivers and lakes and whatnot) the argument is invalid.

The third stanza, by comparison,  is a logically sound argument:

  1. If all our vessels ran’a,
  2. If none had but a crack’a; (unstated premise – the only way to import grapes in the 1600s is by ship)
  3. (or) If Spanish apes ate all the grapes, (premise)
  4. What would be do for sack’a? (conclusion – we wouldn’t be able to make sherry)

Could it be that this rhyme has found its longevity in positing these seemingly bizarre scenarios which demand unravelling, engaging our critical thinking muscles by discerning the validity of an argument through frivolity?

The phrase ‘if all the world were paper and all the seas were ink’, in whole or in part, has become so engrained into our lexicon that it appears in such varied places as Ali Ünal‘s translations of the Qur’an:

Say: “If all the sea were ink to write my Lord’s words (the acts, decrees, and manifestations of all His Names and Attributes), the sea would indeed be exhausted before my Lord’s words would be exhausted, even if We were to bring the like of it in addition to it.”


a Shirley Temple number:

and another poem, A Verse with a Moral but no Name by Howard Pyle, (published in 1885) which treats the rhyme like a riddle:

A wise man once, of Haarlem town,
Went wandering up, and wandering down,
And ever the question asked:

“If all the world was paper,
And if all the sea was ink,
And if the trees were bread and cheese,
What would we do for drink?”

Then all the folk, both great and small,
Began to beat their brains,
But they could not answer him at all,
In spite of all their pains

But still he wandered here and there,
This man of great renown,
And still he questioned everywhere,
The folk of Haarlem town:

“If all the world was paper,
And if all the sea was ink,
And if the trees were bread and cheese,
What would we do for drink?”

Full thin he grew, as, day by day,
He toiled with mental strain,
Until the wind blew him away,
And he ne’er was seen again.

And now methinks I hear you say,
“Was ere a man so foolish, pray,
Since first the world began?”
Oh, hush! I’ll tell you secretly
Down East there dwells a man, and he
Is asking questions constantly,
That none can answer, that I see,
Yet he’s a wise-wise man!

It’s clear, then, that the lines of this rhyme have a history all of their own. According to Irving Linn in his seminal 1938 paper ‘If All the Sky Were Parchment’  in Hebrew literature, the phrase,

makes its earliest appearance in the first half of our era in the recorded sayings of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, the founder and first president of the academy at Jabneh. The students of Rabbi Jochanan seem to have been dazzled by the extent off his knowledge. When they asked him whether there were any limits to his wisdom, the Rabbi replied cryptically: “If all the skies were parchment, and if all the  oceans ink, and the wood of all the trees were filed down to pens, it would hardly suffice to imprint, not my wisdom of my teachers.”

In light of this Mennes and Smith (remember them from about 1000 words ago?) appear to be ridiculing the reverent, obsequious philosophical effusion of the religious establishment. It is, of course, difficult to know the writers’ motivations, but it’s very likely that they did not expect our children to be repeating the verse 350 years later. ‘If All the World Were Paper’ has entered the creative lexicon to the extent that it’s famous lines have become cliché. This suggests the verse isn’t going to fade away any time soon.

* The full title of this remarkable volume is Facetiae: Musarum Deliciae, or The Muses Recreation. conteining severall Pieces of poetique wit. By Sr. J. M. and Ja: S 1658. AND  Wit Restor’d, in severall select poems, not formerly publisht. 1656. ALSO Wits Recreations, selected from the finest fancies of moderne muses. WITH A Thousand Out-landish Proverbs. Printed from an edition 1640, with all the Wood Engravings, and improvements of subsequent Editions TO WHICH ARE NOW ADDED Memoirs of Sir John Mennis and Dr. James Smith. WITH A Preface.

No, really it is.


With thanks to X, for her help with the formal logic.


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