English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

On “unchartered” waters?

Q: I often hear references to “unchartered” territory. As I understand, “uncharted” means unmapped and the use of “unchartered” is incorrect. I would appreciate any information you might provide regarding these terms.

A: You’re right, of course. Unknown or unexplored territory is “uncharted,” and the use of “unchartered” here is incorrect.

However, the misuse has been in print for more than a century and a half, apparently the result of early misspellings. And at least one standard dictionary includes “unchartered” in the figurative sense of “irregular.”

In fact, the adjective “unchartered” is not often used correctly in its literal sense, though it can be done.

It’s possible to hire an “unchartered accountant” (one without the professional designation), or to sail an “unchartered boat” (one you own instead of hire). But you can’t sail on “unchartered waters.”

We once mentioned this misuse in passing (in a post about “baited breath”), but now we’ll take a closer look.

“Uncharted,” first recorded in the 19th century, literally means not appearing on a map or chart. It’s derived from the noun “chart,” which originally meant a map when it entered English in the 1600s or possibly earlier.

The word for a map came into English from French (carte), derived in turn from the Latin carta or charta, which the Oxford English Dictionary says meant paper or a leaf of paper.

The OED has a few questionable uses of “chart” from the 1500s. The first definite example appeared in the following century:

“The Geographicall Mappe is twofold: either the Plaine Chart, or the Planispheare.” (From Nathanael Carpenter’s Geography Delineated Forth in Two Bookes, 1625.)

Before the English word was spelled “chart,” it appeared in the 1500s as “carde” or “card.”

Here’s an early example, written sometime before 1527: “A little Mappe or Carde of the Worlde.” (From an account in Diuers Voyages Touching the Discouerie of America, a collection published in 1582.)

Until long into the 1600s, the OED says, a seagoing map might be called a “card,” “card of the sea,” “mariner’s card,” or “sea-card.” By the late 1600s, it was a “chart” or “sea-chart.” (Even now, the navigation room on a ship is called the “chart-house” or “chart-room.”)

Over the years the noun “chart” eventually acquired related meanings (a graph, a sheet of information, a musical arrangement, a plan, a course).

In the 19th century the noun gave rise to a verb (1842) and to the adjectives “charted” (1857) and “uncharted” (1890s), according to citations in the OED.

These are the two earliest Oxford examples of “uncharted”:

“To establish the latitude and longitude of uncharted places” (from Popular Science Monthly, 1895).

“In tracking the Siberian coast through the month of August, many uncharted islands were discovered” (from the Edinburgh Review, 1897).

However, we’ve found several earlier appearances, including one that dates from the first half of the 19th century.

In Sparks From the Anvil (1846), the American diplomat Elihu Burritt writes that ancient shepherds and sailors used the stars “to guide them by night over the vast plains of the East, and the uncharted waters of the ocean.”

The expression “uncharted waters” is still used literally, as in this sentence from “Sailing the Artic,” an article by Nicolas Peissel in the May 5, 2011, issue of Sail magazine:

“In these uncharted waters full of ice, unidentified rocks, sand bars and low islands that provide little sanctuary, heavy weather tactics must be planned in advance.”

But “uncharted waters” (along with its sister phrase, “uncharted territory”) gets much more mileage as an idiom for the unknown or unexplored.

The OED doesn’t have an entry for these popular idioms, but in our own searches we haven’t found any earlier than the 1890s.

When used idiomatically, “uncharted” is sometimes replaced by “unchartered,” a substitution that makes no sense.

“Unchartered,” first recorded in the late 18th century, literally means not having a charter, or “not formally privileged or constituted.”

Figuratively, as the OED adds, it means “irregular, lawless.” However, we could find only one standard dictionary (Merriam-Webster Unabridged) that now includes the figurative sense.

The earliest literal usage we know of was reported by the linguist Mark Liberman, who found a passage referring to “the unchartered banks of Scotland” in a 1799 issue of the Scots Magazine. (Reported in a 2013 article in the Language Log.)

The OED’s earliest literal use is from 1812: “Those planters … who should place confidence in the paper of unchartered banks.” (From the Weekly Register of Baltimore.)

And here’s a figurative use from 1805, cited in the OED:  “Me this unchartered freedom tires.” (From the “Ode to Duty,” by William Wordsworth.)

As for misuses of “unchartered” to mean “uncharted,” we’ve found many examples dating from the mid-19th century onwards. Here’s one from Shawmut: Or, the Settlement of Boston by the Puritan Pilgrims (1845), by Charles Kittredge True:

“His prudence, patience, courage and energy made him the successful pilot of the ship of state in the unchartered waters into which she was launched.”

It’s clear from the context that “unchartered” is being used in the sense of “uncharted”—that is, unmapped, unexplored, unknown.

An even clearer example, from Sanders’ High School Reader, an 1856 textbook by Charles W. Sanders, was undoubtedly the result of a typo.

The book cites the example mentioned earler in Sparks From the Anvil, but misspells “uncharted” as “unchartered.”

The adjective “unchartered” is the negative of “chartered,” a word from the early 1400s meaning “founded, privileged, or protected by charter.”

That word in turn is derived from the verb “charter,” originally meaning to grant a charter (circa 1425), later meaning to privilege or license (1542), and finally to hire (1803).

The source of the verb is the noun “charter” (1200s), for a legal document granting rights or privileges, or for a contract between people.

“Charter” came into Middle English from the Old French chartre, which in turn comes from the Latin noun for a charter, cartula.

And here’s an etymological connection for you. The Latin cartula—which literally means “small paper or writing,” the OED says—is a diminutive of carta or charta (paper), the ultimate source of “chart.”

It’s also the source of our map-related words “cartography” (map making), and “cartographer” (map maker).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation
And check out our books about the English language.