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Why is butcher paper spelt without an apostrophe, rather than as "butcher's paper", when "carpenter's square" is spelt with an apostrophe?

  • 2
    Because the butcher wasn't friends with the greengrocer. – Flaw Nov 24 '13 at 8:53
  • Not to mention painter's tape, pitcher's mound, quilter's pins, and baker's dozen... Curious. It makes me wonder if the "butcher" in butcher paper is referring to the verb "to butcher" rather than the profession ("the butcher"), making the name more akin to dive mask (or diving mask), or icing knife (rather than diver's mask and icer's knife). If so, I'd expect to find occasional references to "butchering paper", like: Commercial butchers use specialized butchering paper to wrap the meat before freezing. – J.R. Nov 24 '13 at 11:09
  • I guess this must be an American phrase. I have absolutely never heard of it (or of kraft paper, which the Wikipedia article uses to define it: I thought at first that was a misprint for craft paper). – Colin Fine Nov 24 '13 at 12:32
  • Butcher block too can be spelt with or without the apostrophe, likewise driver licence. – Mari-Lou A Nov 24 '13 at 12:32
  • @ColinFine it's more often used in the US, but certainly not unknown in GB or IE. – Jon Hanna Nov 24 '13 at 13:03
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"Butcher's paper" is found, as is "butchers' paper" more rarely.

It's just the difference between using the genitive to associate one noun with another ("butcher's paper" being paper that belongs to or is associated with a butcher or a figurative butcher that represents all butchers, and "butchers' paper" being paper that belongs to or is associated with butchers) and using a noun adjunct to treat butcher as an adjective ("butcher paper" hence being paper that is associated with butchers).

The three possibilities of "butcher paper", "butcher's paper" and "butchers' paper" would all hence be standard English.

Of these three, the third is unusual unless there's a need to point out the plurality - we more often posit a single case to represent the class than refer to the plurality, so it's not really seen in this use.

Of the remaining too, there seems that there is a general move away from the genitive and toward the adjunct, perhaps related to the general move away from using the apostrophe in cases where one style would use it and another would not that I mention toward the end of this answer. This leaves its mark in some cases where we have what appears to be a plural adjunct despite plurals being normally considered incorrect such as "writers group" originating from "writers' group" but changing from a genitive use to a sort of half-adjunct-with-plural/half-genitive-without-apostrophe use.

So:

  1. Butcher's Paper. Normal use of genitive, found, and common in some equivalent cases.
  2. Butcher Paper. Normal use of adjunct, found, and increasingly more common.
  3. Butchers' Paper. Valid but unusual unless plurality needs to be pointed out for some reason.
  4. Butchers Paper. Unusual use of adjunct from plural. Considered incorrect by many, but sometimes found where one form has mutated into another.

That one of the two more usual forms is found rather than the other is down to the vagaries that lead to one of two or more possibilities winning out.

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