This answer mentions the idiom/saying Papier ist geduldig. The literal translation is "Paper is patient", but I gather (see DWDS.) it really means something like "Promises made are often not kept," or "Don't believe everything you hear," or perhaps "Big thunder, little rain." But what does this have to do with paper and being patient?

If I were to guess at the meaning I'd say it means that it's much easier write something down than do it, so something like "Easier said (or written) than done." Redensarten-Index is usually good at explaining this kind of thing, but in this case it only gives a connection to the Latin saying Epistola non erubescit, which seems rather different that the saying in question.

Edit: I'm reading here that similar sayings exist in other languages, though perhaps with different meanings, including Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Dutch, Afrikaans and Spanish. I think the most enlightening quote is

"A piece of paper doesn't care what you write on it, it just lies there." (Jonathan Clark Eagle)

I interpret this to mean that you can write down anything from sublime wisdom to patent nonsense, and to the paper it doesn't matter which. But I think the German has a slightly different meaning, going by the quote

Papier ist geduldig, insbesondere in Wahljahren. Die Parteien versprechen den Wählern möglichst viel, um an ihre Stimmen zu kommen. (Die Welt, 03.02.2018, via DWDS)

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    As a native speaker, I find it interesting that you don't expect the paper part to have a literal (but metaphorical) meaning, because in my understanding it only applies to things written on paper. Therefore, like @jonath.scholbach, I would've assumed the proverb is quite transparent. Jan 26, 2021 at 7:32
  • @amadeusamadeus: It's clear that the saying is a metaphor; paper is not literally patient or impatient. It's true that it's more likely that the "impatient" part is metaphorical. But I promise that the saying is not transparent to English speakers.
    – RDBury
    Jan 26, 2021 at 8:09
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    Sure, I don't doubt it, it's just an intriguing fact to me! Thinking about it, I guess, however, that patient is more of a personification than a metaphor---a paraphrase would be paper doesn't complain. Jan 27, 2021 at 15:49

2 Answers 2


The meaning of the phrase is slightly different from how you interpret it: Papier ist geduldig means as much as "Promises being written down, do not mean much by themselves." DWDS explains it as

alles lässt sich schreiben und drucken (unabhängig davon, ob die Worte auch zutreffen)

This explanation translates to: "Everything can be written down and be printed, regardless whether the words are actually true".

I would add, that the proverb expresses the notion that (political) promises would often not be kept and that treaties are not worth much, as long as there is no mechanism of enforcing them.

Focus Online claims that the metaphor is rooted in a word of Cicero:

Epistula non erubescit. ["A letter does not blush."]

(This latin metaphor is different from the German, but it shares the metaphoric core PAPER = PERSON WITH EMOTIONS.)

For me as a native speaker, the metaphor seems quite straight-forward: If a promise is just written on paper, the paper won't come and call for the promise to be fulfilled. Hence, paper is patient.

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    I don't think Epistula non erubescit means the same thing. According to it.Wiktionary (piped though Google translate) "It means that a writing does not highlight the emotions of the writer and therefore in writing you can express feelings or emotions that you would not have the courage to express in person."/"Dies bedeutet, dass ein Schreiben die Emotionen des Schriftstellers nicht hervorhebt und Sie daher beim Schreiben Gefühle oder Emotionen ausdrücken können, die Sie nicht persönlich ausdrücken würden."
    – RDBury
    Jan 26, 2021 at 7:47
  • @RDBury I agree. I also did not claim that it meant the same. Jan 26, 2021 at 9:09
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    Wanders Sprichwörterlexikon also states a sort of connection to the Latin phrase.
    – guidot
    Jan 26, 2021 at 14:46
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    After sleeping on it, I'm starting to see how your explanation might fit. I think the Latin phrase was throwing me off and it's simpler to just say it has nothing to do with the German phrase. English has a phrase, "not worth the paper it's written on," which seems close to what we're talking about.
    – RDBury
    Jan 27, 2021 at 6:22
  • ... Even if you get a guarantee or promise in writing, while you at least have proof that it exists, the written version itself has no power of enforcement. Without enforcement, the written promise "isn't worth the paper it's printed on" or, put another way, the "paper is patient" and willing to wait forever for the promise to be kept.
    – RDBury
    Jan 27, 2021 at 6:23

Back when more relationships were conducted through correspondence on paper, my great-grandmother used this phrase to mean that generally people were nicer in their written letters than they would turn out to be in person.

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    WElcome to German.SE. I understand your answer that way, that in the experience of your grandmother there was a difference in people's behavior. While I'm not sure how to put that piece into the puzzle of "looking for the origin" - maybe you can add at least a time frame to locate this telling into the centuries? Nov 23, 2021 at 18:06

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