We’ve all seen this phrase in our lives: in manuals, books, in PDFs, in budget reports and financial documents: “this page is intentionally left blank” or any variation like this. I’ve often wondered about the reason for it, but it seems like everyone has got their own personal take on it, so I’m quite pleased to find someone who has done their proper research. Skipping some initial context,
I thought the phrase might trace to the late 1800s, after hot-metal typesetting allowed much more rapid progression from manuscript to print, with less planning and oversight than previous handset type. Noting a blank page as such could have reassured readers of certain kinds of documents, especially financial reports.
While I wouldn’t have put it in that range, apparently it’s… even older than that! “The phrase, though, is far older than I suspected. We have to roll back further to the very dawn of movable-type printing in the Western world, when a version first appears in Latin.” So the plot thickens.
After a little introduction on why new chapters on books have tended to start on the right side rather than the left (touching on the maladroit and gauche literal connotation), he was finally on to something:
She’d found [Sarah Werner] a 1541 manuscript, “Justin Martyr, Opera,” in which on a blank sheet a different hand wrote “Nihil hic deest”—roughly translated, “Nothing is lacking.” Variants appear on later pages. The original scribe left it blank because his copytext didn’t have that bit, and maybe he was going to go back and fill it in, and so guessed the amount of space it would take and left that blank.” Other empty pages weren’t so noted, however.
And after tracking this pattern down for a few years earlier in history, something interesting began to be revealed. Sarah again:
On this page, he says, “Something happened where the layout they were stuck with—with the text and the header—that it generated just enough white space, they were worried that it would look like something was missing.” Many books of this era filled out a page completely from top to bottom, unless an error was made.
So, if a page wasn’t fully completed with words, a “nothing is lacking” would be written underneath. This was the 14th century after all; I guess an explanation for such a waste of precious and expensive space was in order.
The author covers a lot more ground, but I’m sure there’s a lot more to say on the topic, so keep reading.