Yesterday on the subway train, I saw two men from The US talking, and I heard, overheard actually, one of them said "She was waving a sheaf of papers", I just want to know what "papers" means exactly in daily English. Did that man mean "newspapers" or "paper documents"?
The operative definition of sheaf here is:
: a group of things fastened together
This originally derived from the meaning a bunch of stalks and ears of grain that are tied together after being cut. A bunch of papers fastened together sort of resembled a sheaf of grain and the term was transferred.
Here is a sheaf of grain:
And here is a sheaf of papers:
In practice, an unbound stack of papers is often referred to as a sheaf as well.
When I hear "a sheaf of papers," I immediately assume standard letter-sized papers – in other words, a stack of letters, or maybe ungraded exams (if the person was a teacher), or maybe documents from work.
On the other hand, if the person had newspapers, and I wanted to use the word "sheaf" for some reason (maybe this is recycling day), I could imagine myself saying "a sheaf of newspapers."
I saw Larry carrying a sheaf of newspapers down to the curb.
However, I wouldn't refer to "a sheaf of newspapers" as "a sheaf of papers." In the context of "sheaf," papers means paper documents.
Here's where it gets tricky: Yes, I can use the word paper when referring to a newspaper.
Did you see the news in today's paper?
And I can even use the papers when I'm referring to a bundle of newspapers:
Did you take the papers down to the curb yet?
And I can even refer to newspapers as papers when talking about sheafing:
Grab all of last week's papers, put them in a sheaf, and take them down to the curb.
With all that said, though, I still think I'm more likely to say sheaf of newspapers than sheaf of papers, unless there's enough surrounding context where it would be absolutely obvious what I was talking about:
Every morning, Larry gets The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor delivered to his doorstep. At the end of every week, he brings a sheaf of papers down to the curb.