I have recently got a book which is almost 700 pages in A4 format. To save the costs, it was printed on very thin paper and with low-coverage ink.

I am looking for a single word or an idiom for very, very thin book pages.

Particular usage:

Despite being printed on ________, this book is still two inches thick!


These are some _________ pages. Look how fragile they are, I can almost see through them!

  • 15
    Velum, "bible paper".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 12:04
  • 2
    @SpehroPefhany Note that the meaning is actually different for different types of paper - copy paper is measured by 17x22 sheets; book paper by 25x38 sheets, with the consequence that 20 pound copy paper is about the same density as 50 pound book paper.
    – Random832
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 17:37
  • 3
    I don't think the pounds thing is very helpful except to those who are in the printing industry. I have exactly no idea what 9lb paper is Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 2:05
  • 4
    @SpehroPefhany Nobody outside North America has any idea what this baroque system means ("baroque" because you can't even compare the numbers, since the rating of a particular piece of paper depends on the standard sheet size, and different papers may have different standard sheet sizes). Everywhere else in the world uses mass per unit area, typically grams per square metre, which is independent of any idea of standard sheet size. (Ordinary copier paper is 80gsm, lighter-weight copier paper or note paper more like 70gsm; nice writing paper might be 110gsm.) Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 11:13
  • 2
    I may jokingly refer to it as 1-ply. Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 18:51

11 Answers 11


Also known as 'onion skin' or 'onion paper'. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onionskin.

Onionskin or onion skin is a thin, light-weight, strong, often translucent paper. Not made from onions, it is named for their thin, papery skins which it superficially resembles. It was usually used with carbon paper for typing duplicates in a typewriter, for permanent records where low bulk was important, or for airmail correspondence. ~ http://cool.conservation-us.org/don/dt/dt2375.html

Onionskin may be an expression used in book publishing in parts of the USA, as pointed out by EL&U member Eric Hauenstein. The term more frequently encountered in the UK is 'India paper', originally suggested here by EL&U member Brian Hooper. India paper is traditionally a thin light paper produced in Asia or in the West in imitation of Asian thin papers. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India_paper

This image (below), of the Deluxe (India Paper) single volume edition of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (http://www.tolkienlibrary.com/tolkien-book-store/NH0013.htm) gives some idea of how translucent India paper is when used in bound books:

enter image description here

This image (below) is of 'Bible Paper' (referenced by EL&U member mikeagg in his answer to this question) in Schuyler Publisher's Quentel Bible. Bible Paper is essentially the same product as India Paper, but has become the standard term for this sort of very thin paper when used in the production of Bibles. Note that at 45gsm, Shuyler claim that this is the most opaque Bible Paper in the market. (https://tresses.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/schuyler-quentel-nasb-review/)

enter image description here

Just for completeness, here (below) is an image showing onionskin paper. Note the distinctive colour. In former times single plain onionskin sheets were interleaved in books to protect images, and also to prevent heavily inked pages containing images adhering to the page opposite. The drying process applied to onionskin paper gives it a very slightly uneven surface that prevents pages sticking together.

enter image description here

Some Ngrams from Google give us some sense of what is going on. Note that simply searching for onionskin paper (or any of its variant spellings) will find matches for typing and writing paper. This question is asking for information about paper used in book publishing, hence the Ngram search should be for something like 'printed on...', as in this example:

enter image description here

Another Ngram makes the point about the dominance of India paper in publishing even more forcefully:

enter image description here

Finally Onionskin (and its variants) up against India paper (case insensitive):

enter image description here

On a final - final - note, there is some confusion being generated in this discussion over what is meant by the term India paper. This explanation from the ABE Book Trading site should help clear matters up:

enter image description here

  • 2
    When I worked at a purveyor of a vast assortment of Bibles, this was the term we used when describing the various editions to customers. This was in the southern US. Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 13:45
  • 2
    @EricHauenstein Really? I never heard that in the UK. You learn something new every day! Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 13:46
  • 1
    @Araucaria - Indeed. I added the location in response to your comment. The heavier paper grades generally indicated either low cost editions or those intended for hard service (children, public use, etc.) Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 13:50
  • Great answer. We have the same phrase ('onion skin') for the thin paper in Persian/Farsi. I think the special color of the paper (usually canary-colored) is also important in shaping its name.
    – Ho1
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 14:19
  • 1
    Essentially - I believe - onion skin is a misnomer when used to describe the thin translucent paper used in some books. But some do use it mistakenly in this context. My original answer only meant to reference this occasional - and apparently regional - use. I am in the process of transferring the reputation from this answer to the answer mentioning 'India Paper' (first) and 'Bible Paper' (second). I suspect the popularity of onion skin as an answer might have something to do with term appearing in some computer-based drawing programs.
    – John Mack
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 18:55

Lightweight Offset Paper

Regular folks outside the printing industry normally call this Bible paper or sometimes rice paper, but the technical term used by the printing industry for this lightweight offset paper.

From Wikipedia:

Bible paper is a thin grade of paper used for printing books which have a large number of pages. Technically it is called lightweight offset paper and is a type of woodfree uncoated paper. This paper grade often contains cotton or linen fibres to increase its strength in spite of its thinness.

  • 2
    This is a technical term.
    – Ho1
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 17:44
  • 1
    Technical term, definitely. As a native English speaker, I wouldn't have known what was meant by this if I'd heard it in conversation, if not for the fact that I've seen this post. Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 6:47
  • 10
    If I heard rice paper, I'd expect something edible used in cooking Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 10:31
  • 1
    Or the walls of a traditional Japanese/Chinese house. In fact it makes me think of a heavier paper, since in those cases rice paper is layered and treated with wax to withstand the elements/daily use.
    – thanby
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 11:09
  • 1
    through 15 years of working in the printing industry and as a designer I never heard this term, not once.
    – dwoz
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 0:35

This is commonly referred to as Bible paper:

a very thin, strong, opaque rag paper often used for Bibles, prayer books, dictionaries, and the like [Dictionary.com]

  • 2
    My first association too.
    – Jos
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 13:08
  • This is of course the correct answer. "onion skin paper" is more used for writing paper (which you can slightly see-through). "rice" paper has nothing much to do with anything except fusion cuisine. Re "india paper" - have not heard it.
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 13:28

It might be called India paper:-

a thin tough opaque printing paper [Merriam-Webster]

or Oxford India paper, another term for it.

  • 1
    This is definitely what's used in the book trade. Here's 79, 000 instances from the second-hand book site Abebooks. Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 13:44
  • 1
    +1 I remember holding a complete copy of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in India Paper, in a single volume in the 1970's, no thicker than an average paperback.
    – John Mack
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 13:53
  • There we go. I remembered it as "Indian paper" and couldn't figure out what it had to do with native Americans who didn't make paper.
    – Joshua
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 3:05
  • 1
    interesting, but having googled around a lot, india paper seems to be a somewhat blotter-like substance, used in (say) engraving.
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 13:29

I'm from the Netherlands, so it might be different, but we call that rice paper over here.

  • 5
    I'm sure this could be the correct answer. However I wonder if it is a technical term and so would be misunderstood by some people? I have always thought of rice-paper as literally being made of rice (which it can be) so it would have confused me. Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 11:06
  • 8
    Rice paper risks confusion with the (edible) rice paper used in baking, and in various asian dishes like vietnamese spring rolls, etc, which is often simply called "rice paper". I'm guessing the asker doesn't want readers to try to eat their book :-) Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 11:16
  • 1
    I've heard the term used similarly here in Australia, for very thin paper, though ever since "rice paper" became a more common culinary term here over the last few decades it seems to be used less as a term for thin paper. Twenty years ago, I'd have given this answer without hesitation
    – Glen_b
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 0:35
  • "I have always thought of rice-paper as literally being made of rice" That would be because rice paper is made of rice ... duh Note however that artists also use "rice" paper which is a kind of tissue-paper like choice for watercolours and similar mediums. It falls apart if you get it too wet - its' a squidgy stuff .. it's rather like rice paper (i.e the cooking ingredient) so it's usually referred to as "rice paper". ... continued...
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 13:33
  • (I don't know if artists-rice-paper example is "really" made of rice ..... maybe only the best artists-rice-paper. This is no more astounding than the fact that "japan black" ink, say, does not always literally come from ' " japan " '.) In any event ... there's just no relationship between (1) rice paper (ie the cooking ingredient) and the OP, or (2) artists-rice-paper (ie, tissue paper for use in watercolours, which is sort of like the cooking ingredient and is this named) and the OP.
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 13:36

While not literally true, when describing especially flimsy paper the term tissue paper or tissue paper thin is often used

a thin gauzy paper used especially for protecting something (as by covering or wrapping)


Used in this context, the connotation is often negative.

  • 1
    Could you provide an example of one publication where tissue paper was used? Because the OP is talking about the pages of a book, and not the thin, almost transparent paper which shops use to wrap fragile objects.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 20:02
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA I am not suggesting that true tissue paper is actually used in publication. Use of the term would be idiomatic.
    – bib
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 20:30
  • 1
    An alternative term for flimsy paper is not being asked though. But regardless, I don't think I have ever heard anyone say writing paper, or the pages of a book were so thin they were like tissue paper. I have heard and used the expression wafer thin paper instead.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 20:35
  • 3
    @Mari-LouA But he asked for an idiom as an alternative. Maybe I should have offered gossamer? And he probably should use like tissue paper if he were inclined in that direction.
    – bib
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 20:37
  • Would using the expression tissue paper be an idiom or more like a metaphor? I don't know...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 20:42

These claims were made in the bounty announcement for this question:

Although Onion Paper, India Paper and Bible Paper are used interchangeably, the evidence is that in the book trade the term 'India Paper' has the greatest circulation.

Thus, two separate claims were made:

  1. "Onion Paper" (which I take to mean any of the onionskin-related terms for paper, including "onionskin", "onion skin paper" and "onion paper"), "India Paper" and "Bible Paper" are used interchangeably.
  2. The "evidence is that in the book trade the term 'India Paper' has the greatest circulation". "Circulation" is tough to interpret here; I decided it signified some amalgam of both contemporary and historical currency.

The sphere of interest implicated in these claims was "the book trade", which I assume includes anybody more than casually involved in the buying and selling of books.

The claims do not match my experience, which includes more than a half century of more than casual involvement in the book trade.

Of claim 1, I can say from my own prior experience that it is sometimes true that 'onionskin' (var.) is used interchangeably with 'India Paper' and 'Bible Paper', but more often not. Evidence subsequently gathered (in the course of this investigation) suggests that the more involved people are in the book trade, the less likely they are to use those terms interchangeably in their workplace, although they may more readily understand those terms, and may be more likely to appreciate, when the terms are being used interchangeably or wrongly.

Of claim 2, because "the evidence" is cited, my personal experience has less bearing--yet my personal prior experience is some evidence. My prior experience, and so that prior evidence, does not bear out the claim that 'India Paper' has more overall currency than either 'Bible Paper' or 'onionskin' (var.). Such other evidence as I've subsequently been able to gather in the course of this investigation--evidence which is thus now also part of my experience--does not bear out the claim.

'Onionskin' is the most commonly used term, by those more than casually but, most frequently, less than intensively involved in the buying and selling of books.

'Onionskin' also more closely matches the stipulation of the original question: 'onionskin' is a single word, which the questioner specifically asked for by tagging the question with "single-word requests".

Note that while the questioner also used the tag "idiom-request", the description of that tag does not suggest the "idiom-request" is a request for an idiomatic phrase. To the contrary, the tag for an idiom-request suggests that if a phrase is sought, the "phrase-requests" tag should also be used, if desired:

This tag is for questions seeking an idiom that fits a meaning. If you're also seeking a phrase, see the "phrase-requests" tag too.

I employed three principal sources while compiling evidence during this investigation. Those were

  1. The AbeBooks (AB) used books website, including listings and other descriptive material.
  2. Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology (BCB, 1982 edition), Matt T. Roberts and Don Etherington, with Drawings by Margaret R. Brown.
  3. Google Ngrams (GN).

I shouldn't have to stipuate that none of these sources are perfect. They are all, however, more or less reliable for my purposes. False positives and duplicate entries are, for example, as inevitable in GN results as they are in results from searching used book listings at AB. Additionally, finding ideal terms for use at those sites is not possible. I chose appropriate terms to the best of my ability.

The 1982 edition of BCB is only 33 years outdated, which I attempted to correct for by checking information from it against other, general reference, sources.

First, I took as a given that most of the people more than casually involved with the buying and selling of books are not specialists in book making or printing. Specialists in those areas are thin on the ground and, while they may at work use the specialized terminology customary in their workplace, at any other time they are likely to adopt the terminology they know they can use to communicate with non-specialists without also having to repeat unmemorable, long-winded definitions and explanations.

As a side note, it should be observed that specialists who buy paper for books may use the invoice term cited by tchrist, lightweight offset paper, if they are using an offset press (or otherwise have a use for offset press paper). Along with that term they may use a description including weight and size, etc., as needed for their particular project. It is, however, unlikely that the term will be used informally, even when talking with their peers in the workplace. In such informal use, the likely terms will be 'onionskin', 'bible', 'india' or, less frequently, 'oxford'--in short, whatever term is customary at their workplace.

As background, the following are specialist definitions from BCB for the types of paper at issue. The first definition given for each term was taken from BCB. Any additional definitions included for the terms were taken from Collins English Dictionary.

Onionskin, var. Onion Paper, Onion Skin Paper.
A durable lightweight paper that is thin and usually nearly transparent—so called because of its resemblance to the dry outer skin of an onion. It is used for making duplicate copies of typewritten material, permanent records where low bulk is important, and for airmail correspondence. It is produced entirely from cotton fibers, bleached chemical wood pulps, or combinations of these. The fibers of the paper are long and the paper is sized with rosin, starch or glue; it is usually supercalendered or plated to a high finish, or is given a cockle finish. Basis weights range from 7 to 10 pounds (17 x 22). See also: MANIFOLD PAPER. [BCB]

  1. (Printing, Lithography & Bookbinding) a glazed translucent paper.
    [onionskin. (n.d.) Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged. (1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003). Retrieved October 29 2015 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/onionskin.]

Bible Paper
A very lightweight, highly opaque paper, used primarily for low bulk books, such as Bibles, dictionaries, etc. Its basis weight generally ranges from 14 to 30 pounds (25 X 38). Bible paper of a basis weight of 20 pounds bulks up to 1,100 sheets per inch. The paper is generally produced from bleached chemical wood pulps, often with the addition of mixes of linen and/or cotton fiber, along with rag pulps, flax, and the like. Bible paper is heavily loaded with titanium oxide or other high grade pigments to improve opacity. Other important characteristics, other than printability, include strength, good folding endurance, and permanence. The term "Bible paper" is sometimes used with reference to any book paper having a basis weight of 30 pounds or less. See also: INDIA PAPER. [BCB]

  1. (Printing, Lithography & Bookbinding) a thin tough opaque paper used for Bibles, prayer books, and reference books.
  2. (Printing, Lithography & Bookbinding) (not in technical usage) another name for India paper.
    [bible paper. (n.d.) Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged. (1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003). Retrieved October 29 2015 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Bible+paper.]

India Paper, var. Oxford India Paper
From about 1768 to 1875. a soft absorbent paper imported from China for use in making proofs of engravings. Since 1875 it has been made from chemically processed hemp and rags. Today it is generally a thin. opaque sheet made in a basis weight of 20 pounds, bulking approximately 1,000 pages to the inch.

  1. (Printing, Lithography & Bookbinding) a thin soft opaque printing paper made in the Orient.
  2. (Printing, Lithography & Bookbinding) another name (not in technical usage) for Bible paper.
    (India paper. (n.d.) Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged. (1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003). Retrieved October 29 2015 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/India+paper.]

In contrast to BCB's more complete set of, and more precise definitions, the types of paper listed in AB's "Guide to Paper Types" do not include 'onionskin', 'onion skin' or 'onion'. Nor is 'bible paper' listed. 'India paper', however, is used with reference to two distinct types of paper: 'India proof paper', which is equivalent to 'China paper', and 'Oxford India Paper'.

From these observations, and especially the differences between the specialist definitions in BCB and the non-specialist definitions in Collins, it seems evident that 'onionskin' (var.) will most commonly be used as the generic term for tough, lightweight paper by non-specialists and specialists alike. However, more evidence supporting that conclusion will come from analysis of the AB listings as well as GN graphs.

Searching AB listings (on Google, using '"[term]" site:abebooks.com'), which are prepared and submitted by various sellers, yields the following results in raw numbers for the various terms:

onionskin      = 1480
"onion skin"   = 2450
"onion paper"  =  222

"india paper"  = 1060
"indian paper" =  409

"bible paper"  = 1770

"china paper"  =  609

Although these searches were made only at the abebooks.com site and exclude results from abebooks.co.uk, and the results for 'onionskin' (var.) include many items that are not books (dust jackets, single pages, books about onion skin, etc.), it is clear that many more results for 'onionskin' (var.) are returned than for 'india paper' or 'bible paper'. This again suggests that 'onionskin', the generic term for thin, tough paper is more likely to be used than 'india paper' (var.) or 'bible paper'.

The use of another common (and equally as well as similarly flawed) measurement instrument, Google Ngrams, suggests that the generic term 'onionskin' is the most common term used in the broader corpus.

papertype ngram

The preponderance of generic onionskin-related terms, as depicted in the graph, does match my personal sense of the relative frequency of the use of those terms compared to the trademark 'India Paper' plus its generic equivalent, 'China Paper'. 'Bible paper' is likewise situated with respect to 'onionskin'. Satisfied, therefore, I abandon my devils advocacy for onionskin.

  • The frequency of onionskin's appearatge in ABE Books is boosted by the fact that ABE also lists documents and drawings and some of these are on onionskin. Onionskin paper was also used as a protective sheet over the top of images in books, but this is quite different from describing a book as being printed on 'onionskin'. One example might suffice: The Life and Times of Cavour by Thayer WR. Item Description: Book Condition: Very Good. ... 604 pages; "With illustrations and maps." Red boards with gilt lettering. Onionskin over frontispiece intact.
    – John Mack
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 23:59
  • The OP did not ask for the most commonly used expression to describe this type of paper. My suggestion of 'onionskin' was made with a belief that it was one of several expressions used in relation to this type of paper. Attempting to measure how frequently an expression appears on the internet will tell us nothing more than how frequently an expression appears on the internet. It's likely that more books are printed on 'Bible Paper' than any other sort of light weight paper simply because nearly all of those are that very popular book, the Bible.
    – John Mack
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 0:18
  • Ngrams are, as JEL acknowledges, unreliable. Having recreated the Ngrams in JEL's post it is apparent that they were not set to 'case insensitive' (otherwise a huge spike in India paper and China paper would have been evident in the 1800's). It is obvious though, that what should have been searched for were terms such as 'India paper edition', or 'printed on onionskin', in order to eliminate references to typing or writing paper, or indeed onionskins. A more useful Ngram is linked here: preview.tinyurl.com/p9pluyq. But as JEL says, they are unreliable.
    – John Mack
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 0:40
  • As I look back at the search Araucaria did in Google, his was: <"india paper" abebooks>. Whereas of course if it was looking for india paper occurrences inside Abe Books it should have been <"india paper" +abe books> with variations in spelling and capitalization. I cut to the chase and searched INSIDE Abe Books (using their 'by keyword' parameter) and came up with 3246 matches for India paper. Onion skin paper in all its variants got about 650, with another 750 for plain 'onionskin'', and 1521 for 'onion skin' (although the last actually included references to onions as well).
    – John Mack
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 2:04
  • And still some of the onion skin references inside ABE were to those interleave sheets protecting images, and not to the actual printed pages of text. This has - I have to say - been an interesting exercise in honing up my thinking on search parameters.
    – John Mack
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 2:06

In my school days, we copied drawings using Tracing Paper, which was almost transparent.


Flimsy may fit in your context:

  • Thin paper usually used to make multiple copies.

also as an adjective

  • flimsy paper

The Free Dictionary


According to IATE: wove or bulking or featherweight or flimsy paper, also depending on AmEn vs. BrEn.


Your particular usage examples require different answers, one for pages and one for paper. The answers so far given are mainly for paper. For pages, I have always used 'bible leaves'.

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