Today’s (October 23) Time magazine and New Yorker carried articles dealing with a report of academic scandal of the University of North Carolina under the respective headline, “North Carolina releases Wainstein report on academic scandal - Time” and “U.N.C. boosters outraged that some athletes took real classes - New Yorker.”

Time says:

The report mentions that athletes' academic counselors directed them to take the classes in question. - -It details how a lack of oversight allowed Department of African and Afro-American Studies administrator Deborah Crowder and former chairman Julius Nyang’oro to create so-called “paper classes.” In these classes, students received high grades with “little regard” for the quality of their work. http://time.com/3533013/north-carolina-releases-wainstein-report-on-academic-scandal/

New Yorker says:

An organization of University of North Carolina athletic boosters expressed shock and outrage today over a report that a few members of U.N.C. sports teams may have taken real classes, despite the widespread availability of fake ones. http://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/u-n-c-boosters-outraged-athletes-took-real-classes?intcid=mod-most-popular

I was interested in the unique contrast of the words, “Real Class” and “Paper Class.” The latter is shown in quotation mark.

I can’t find “paper class” in dictionaries at hand. However Google Ngram shows the emergence of the word, “paper class” early in 1860, and its usage peaked in 1970.

Are the words, “Real Class” and “Paper Class” college sport specific? Are they applicable to other beneficiaries such as the children of plutocrats and dignitaries? How popular are they as the antithesis?

  • 2
    I have not actually heard “paper class” before, although the concept is well known and often raised and debated.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 4:12
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    It likely derives from the idiom on paper where it means "in theory rather than in practice". As in these aren't real classes, they're only classes on paper.
    – Jim
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 4:17
  • 1
    What @Jim said. See, for example, the expression "looks good on paper" which suggests that some idea sounds reasonable at first view, but digging into the details or implementation can show that it might not be so wonderful after all. Another, related example, is the expression paper tiger - looks fierce on paper.
    – Drew
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 5:05
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    Note that your first example uses So-called "paper classes", precisely because paper classes alone might not be understood. (The second is a parody, which presumably would be only understood by those familiar with the scandal and its wording. Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 11:30
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    Those aren't set phrases (or snowclones). The concept of a 'real' task (taking real effort) and a nominal one (that is a class in name only, that is pushed through/rubber stamped/ no real work involved) is a very recognizable one. It may have been motivated by 'paper tiger' (truly a set phrase, like 'shell company'). But 'A paper class' is not so evocative of that because 'paper' is something one might do fora class (write a paper), so the 'ineffectual' aspect is muddied.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 13:17

4 Answers 4


Yoichi, simply to repeat what Jim explained, as the official answer:

it's common idiom to use "paper" (or "on paper") to mean: "fake".

So, you have "paper profits",

a "paper company" (you know those fake companies on an island somewhere),

a "marriage on paper only" (when you marry a Russian friend to get her passport),

and so on.

It's simply that usage.

That's all there is to it.

Note that 99% of the time when you (Yoichi) post here an unusual usage, it's actually just because the English writer is an idiot :) Incredibly in this case, it's "all correct". :)

Additionally Jeremy very astutely points out that when you make a new coinage, it's often appropriate to indicate that with " airquotes ".

For example, well established terms are cloud computing, cloud storage, cloud backup. If I started talking about "cloud funding" it might be nice to indicate it that way, with airquotes. Doing so, I explicitly point out that I am making an analogy to the similar well-known phrases.

  • 1
    Though note that a paper company might be a literal manufacturer of paper. :-) Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 10:57
  • LOL a great point... just BTW @YoichiOishi for that particular one, "shelf company" is also used (ie, it is really just some "papers on a shelf somewhere") and also "brass plaque company" or "brass plaque insurance company" (the only thing the insurance company really has is a brass plaque on a building in bermuda; 'fake' offices exist there with 100s of brass plaques out front!)
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 12:41

I can see this coming from the principle of signaling unusual usage as referenced in the Chicago Manual of Style on this Wikipedia page. "Paper class" is unusual usage, so quoting is appropriate. Using real classes, does not need to be quoted, however, even though "paper class" is quoted since it is not an unusual usage of the language.


Google n gram so far as I can see on my first time using it does not show 'paper class' as a word, but does show the pair of words 'paper class' appearing as you say.

Googling 'paper versus real' shows many cases where paper is used as a contrast to real, meaning inauthentic, or not to be trusted. When I read the first article cited I immediately understood that paper classes were ones where the students did not have to do any work, but would have all the right paperwork for the course to prove on paper that they were full time students maintaining the required grades to be collegiate athletes. I had not seen the term before. 'Real classes' seems to be the best antonym term. I don't know of any other uses but the meaning seems clearly orthogonal to whether the students were athletes or getting special treatment for some other reason.

Are there tools that would provide occurrence counts like Google n gram for the last couple of years that would be able to provide meaningful results for nearby uses of other two-word terms? Perhaps a statistically relevant sample could be made of the texts where 'paper classes' and 'real classes' occurred near each other to determine how often they bore the antithetical meanings above. Then some other work could fine other word pairs '* classes' appearing more frequently than 'real classes' near 'paper classes', and they could be similarly analyzed for relevance. that would provide solid empirical evidence to answer your question, but might be too much work.


There are two plausible derivations for "paper class."

The first is a direct reference to the nature of the classes in question - students were graded only on a single written work, commonly referred to as "a paper."

The second is the commonly accepted form "paper (noun)" which is either a (noun) which exists in theory but does not or cannot exist in fact ("it works on paper"), or a fictitious or vacuous (noun) which has been invented to subvert a legal or bureaucratic requirement ("a paper company used for tax evasion"). The phrase is dismissive in the former sense, and implies suspicion by association with the latter sense. The latter sense applies directly to the classes in question.

The author here could have derived "paper class" from either or both of these ideas. I suspect the former, as I could not expect the latter to be marked in scare quotes.

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