What is the origin of the word dead-tree? I know that it basically refers to the print edition of a book that is also available in electronic format but would like to understand of the etymology the word dead-tree. In particular why the combination of the terms dead and tree to refer to books?

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    Books are made of paper, which is made from wood. Jun 13, 2013 at 17:55
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    ...that's dead wood. They haven't yet invented the kind of supertree that could survive being chopped down, pulped, and rolled out to a fraction of a millimetre thick. I think this is General Reference. Jun 13, 2013 at 18:30
  • How does one put dead-tree in a sentence? Something like: The dead-tree version of Harry Potter is available at every bookshop now?!? Would that sentence work?
    – rena
    Jun 13, 2013 at 18:36
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    @rena yup, that's the exact construction that's commonly used - primarily in contrast to digital editions. Jun 13, 2013 at 18:49

2 Answers 2


Paper is typically made from wood pulp, which is produced by grinding up dead trees.

It's really nothing more complicated than that.

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    There is a level of negative implication. Consider the spectrum: "harvested tree", "dead tree" and "killed tree"
    – DJohnM
    Jun 13, 2013 at 23:34
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    @User58220 You'd think that, but I've found the term 'dead tree' used more by lovers and defenders of old fashioned print than by it's detractors. I think it's the fact that the term carries a strong connotation of physicality with it. Jun 13, 2013 at 23:36
  • @LessPop_MoreFizz: If "dead tree" were to have had a negative connotation when used by book-lovers, it would have made the most sense in the early twentieth century, to distinguish the newer papers made from wood fiber from those made of other fibers.
    – supercat
    Nov 20, 2014 at 0:30

Dead tree (noun, adjective) refers to the fact that paper copies of a document require trees to be killed.

The term is somewhat jocular and slightly negative, reminding of the sometimes unnecessity of the printed page in the computing world.

The term originates from the computing world. The first entry in the OED is from the 1991 New Hacker's Dictionary:

Hackers seldom read documentation... A common comment on this is 'You can't grep dead trees'.

Grep is a tool for searching for text in an electronic document, and this shows having a printed document is worse as it's harder and slower to find what you want. The OED compares it to a similar computing term for paper, treeware.

Wiktionary has an antedating:

1986 Apr 15: Barry Shein, Re: job control, net.unix-wizards, 1

My question is basically do you need better on-line programs to search the docs ... , or actually different dead-tree style.

And I found a 1985 antedating in net.lang.c from Usenet, in the signature of Thomas Johnsson in a 23 July 1985 post to net.lang.c:

Mail on dead trees: Dept. of CS, Chalmers University of Technology,
S-412 96 Goteborg, Sweden

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