Imagine an old map, a map with a path to a treasure, like the ones you remember from cartoons. The map's partially destroyed, because it's so old, and it has been exposed to air, and heat, and water, and people touching it, you name it.

My question is: what happened to the paper? Which verb describes it best? I mean the proces of paper getting thinner and more delicate, to the point where a touch can make it turn into powder. Does paper decay? Decompose? I guess not in this case, as the two IMHO refer to what happens when bacteria "feed" on organic matter. So what is it?

  • 6
    "Disintegrate" might often apply to paper.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 22:10
  • 2
    "Aging" applies fairly well to paper; it's a cop out, since you seem to be wanting a specific term, but a general term like "aged map" or "ancient volume of forgotten lore" (with apologies to E.A. Poe) can evoke the reader's/listener's imagination quite well.
    – Patrick M
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 0:23

11 Answers 11


One word that I feel is particularly associated with age-related deterioration of paper-based products is...

moulder (US molder) - slowly decay or disintegrate, especially because of neglect.
OxfordDctionaries example usage: 'the smell of mouldering books'
Plus several examples from Google Books of "mouldered books"

  • 5
    I think that moulder should be restricted to cases where the paper is actually being attacked/consumed by mold (fungi). It's common, but needs some moisture (not just age) to proceed.
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 14:28
  • @Phil: I agree that strictly speaking mouldered implies moisture and age, more strongly than Jim's "foxed" (which you might use even if there's been no "significant" dampness). But for me at least, moulder works in more different contexts. I could easily imagine "Wrap the family heirloom bible up tightly before storage, or it will moulder [away]". But I really can't get my head around "...or it will fox". Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 14:46
  • 3
    I'm not sure the etymology of moulder/molder actually stems from "mould". It simply means to crumble/disintegrate.
    – ptr
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 11:01
  • 2
    @Pete: Consulting OED, I see you appear to be right. Apparently the verb to moulder derives from an OE noun that originally meant (more or less) "crumbly topsoil, earth". Our current mould = the fungussy stuff (one of 5 different noun entries) has a different (somewhat uncertain) etymology probably deriving from an old Danish regionalism meaning "to rot, decay". Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 12:33

Paper rots or mildews if it gets damp, it yellows with age, and perhaps it crumbles.

  • 7
    "Crumble" is pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good...
    – jules
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 20:08
  • Good ones! "Turns brittle" is also used to describe crumbling paper, when it loses its suppleness to bend. Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 20:12
  • 1
    @Kristina: I've no special knowledge here, but it seems to me only relatively modern cheap paper crumbles after a few decades. I'm guessing short fibres in recycled wood, and the rarity of cloth, etc., in the paper are factors here. Really old bibles don't normally crumble - they just get blotchy stains and eaten-away edges. Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 0:07
  • 1
    Old paper (whether wood or rag based), and high-priced specialty papers today, are acid free. Cheap modern paper has high acid content that makes it deteriorate/embrittle very quickly. The DSS may even have been vellum (calfskin?) based.
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 14:26
  • 1
    It may also be weathered by time.
    – Kroltan
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 1:36

I think deteriorate may be an appropriate verb to use:

(intr) to wear away or disintegrate

Maps deterioration

Preserving maps and plans - Preservation and storage -

Deterioration of materials over time is inevitable, but we can control how fast it happens. Some materials are susceptible to deterioration because of their composition and others as a result of storage conditions.

Ngram: use of a few common verbs related to paper deterioration.

  • 2
    Close, but I think it's too general.
    – jules
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 20:08

40 years of experience in printing and photography - we refer to paper 'deteriorating' in a process of 'degradation'. Paper manufacturers have long known that acid in paper is one of the main causes of this process and alkaline papers are much more long lasting and less likely to yellow and age.

The use of alum sizes in papermaking was discontinued because of the acidification this treatment introduces and simply handling paper introduces lactic acid from sweat on the hands. Those organisations dedicated to the preservation of paper based records use a process of alkaline washing to preserve valuable documents.

See the following from Royal Society of Chemistry - Saving Paper

  • 1
    I like the suggestion of the word degradation (or the verb degrade). But the discussion of how degradation actually occurs, while interesting, is off-topic for English.SE and not relevant to the question at hand. Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 18:23

One term for age-related spotting etc is foxing

  • 1
    All my life I've used "slightly foxed" with the vague sense of tatty/stale/putrid (often, of foodstuffs and the like). I'm also familiar with it used metaphorically (drunk, and past one's prime of life). But I never knew until now that it's got specific origins in old blotchy stained paper. I always thought the usage was "slangy", and if I ever encountered references to foxed photographs, I probably assumed it was supposed to be fogged. You learn something new every day, ty! Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 0:01
  • 1
    It's very tempting to attribute "fox" to "Ferric OXide" since apparently these are often rust spots.
    – Jim Mack
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 18:08
  • Actually, I've just checked (the real) OED on this one. It seems to fox = to intoxicate, befuddle. Also (? nonce-use), to redden (one's nose) with drinking was first recorded 1611 (dunno if that's on account of foxes being reddish). The fox = delude, puzzle sense was first recorded 50 years later. In 1743 there's foxed = *of beer: Turned sour. But it's not until 1847 that we get foxed = of the leaves of books, also of timber; Discoloured by decay; stained with brownish-yellow spots. My guess is some figurative uses relate to the fox's typical colour. I doubt Fe2O3 figures in it! Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 20:07
  • @FumbleFingers: Perhaps the animal is so named due to its colour being so similar to the colour of rust. A plausible etymology if I ever heard one.
    – dotancohen
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 7:54
  • 1
    @dotancohen: Given that fox was an "English" word about 1000 years before Anglophones even grasped the concept of oxide in order to create terms like ferric oxide, I think it's an unlikely etymology. But you may think I have a rather blinkered view of such things, since I don't even believe in time travel (yet! :) Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 12:13

Occasionally, people have used the word weather as a verb for scenarios where something exposed to elements has been deteriorated or degraded.

The ancient parchment was so weathered that it crumbled in his hands.



v. to unravel or become worn at the edge, typically through constant rubbing.

This word captures the physical wearing but doesn't relate to the organic decaying as you mentioned. Just a suggestion.


One possibility (although not specific to paper) is erodes.  Also, this may not be what you’re looking for, but paper (with information printed on it) that is exposed to light (and heat?) over a period of time fades.

  • I would perhaps expect the ink to fade, rather than the paper. I have found that papers tend to yellow and darken. Good word, though. :)
    – Jonathan
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 14:04

Here are two attempts to distinguish among several common synonyms related to this question. From Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (2003), addressing the words decay, decompose, rot, putrefy, and spoil, all of which "mean to undergo destructive dissolution":

DECAY implies a slow change from a state of soundness or perfection ("a decaying mansion"). DECOMPOSE stresses a breaking down by chemical change and when applied to organic matter a corruption ("the strong odor of decomposing vegetation"). ROT is a close synonym of DECOMPOSE and often connotes foulness ("fruit was left to rot in the warehouse"). PUTREFY implies the rotting of animal matter and offensiveness to sight and smell ("corpses putrefying on the battlefield"). SPOIL applies chiefly to the decomposition of foods (""keep the ham from spoiling).

And from S. I. Hayakawa, Choose the Right Word: A Modern Guide to Synonyms (1968), addressing the words rot, decay, decompose, molder, putrefy, and spoil, all of which "refer to the breakdown of dead organic tissues by natural bacterial processes":

Rot is the least formal and most forceful of these words, suggesting an advanced point in this process of breakdown; the tissues at this point might or might not be foul-smelling but they would in any case be almost unrecognizable, as compared to their former state: [examples omitted]. Spoil, by contrast, refers to an earlier point in the process of organic breakdown; it is especially applied to foods that have turned "bad" or begun to turn: [examples omitted].

Decay is a more matter-of-fact word than rot, and applies to the whole process of breakdown, but particularly to the end point of total destruction: [examples omitted]. Decompose is a more formal substitute for decay, but is almost clinical in its reference to a point in the process between spoil and rot at which point tissues may be distended and ruptured by a build-up of gases: [examples omitted].

Putrefy refers to the same point of the process as decompose, stressing particularly the presence of foul or poisonous gases and noxious odors: [examples omitted]. Molder might now be thought too precious or euphemistic a substitute for decay. It means to decay gradually and turn into dust: [examples omitted].

Merriam-Webster and Hayakawa seem to agree that decay is the broadest term, since it takes the affected organic object from a state of fitness to one of dissolution. But in other respects, Merriam-Webster focuses on the categories of objects that the various synonyms particularly apply to, while Hayakawa focuses on what he considers the stage of disintegration associated with each synonym.

The odd term out is molder, which Merriam-Webster ignores, and which Hayakawa deems potentially "too precious or euphemistic"—perhaps because (in 1968) the most familiar instance of molder to American English speakers was probably in the folk lyric "John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave [but his truth is marching on]." But to me, the process of gradual decay from wholeness to dust seems an especially appropriate way to describe the gradual disintegration of paper, so I endorse FumbleFingers's suggestion.


To become pulverulent is to dry rot (fungus disease which attacks timber, also is saprobic to wallpaper)

1795 1. a. a decay of seasoned timber caused by fungi that consume the cellulose of wood leaving a soft skeleton which is readily reduced to powder

To decay in moisture, is to ret

(also rate) (retted, retting) 1 tr. soften (flax, hemp, etc.) by soaking or by exposure to moisture. 2 intr. (often as retted adj.) (of hay etc.) be spoilt by wet or rot.

  • Dry rot is a fungus disease that attacks wood, but I have never heard of it attacking books. Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 19:32
  • @PeterShor dry rot "fungus disease which attacks timber and wallpaper" Wallpaper was actually made of paper, and not the commercially prepared synthetic blends. Paper made of pulp, not linen.-english_contemporary.enacademic.com/58862/dry_rot
    – Third News
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 19:41
  • 3
    wallpaper is not books. Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 19:43
  • @PeterShor Leaving aside the discussion... This is some powerful stuff: "wallpaper is not books" :)
    – jules
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 21:43

embrittled is a word which means that something has deteriorated to the point that a slight pressure can break it into pieces.

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