Smitha Mundasad, "Babies' brains to be mapped in the womb and after birth", BBC News 4/9/2013:
By the time a baby takes its first breath many of the key pathways between nerves have already been made.
And some of these will help determine how a baby thinks or sees the world, and may have a role to play in the development of conditions such as autism, scientists say.
But how this rich neural network assembles in the baby before birth is relatively unchartered territory.
In 1921, the OED glossed uncharted as "Of which there is not map or chart. (Common in recent use.)", with the earliest substantive citation as
1895 Pop. Sci. Monthly July 404 To establish the latitude and longitude of uncharted places.
And a check with the Google Ngram viewer suggests that the OED editor who wrote "Common in recent use" got it exactly right, at least if 0.6 per million counts as common:
Of course, in the first few years of the 20th century there were still large areas of the earth's surface "of which there is not map or chart" — a century later, we have an excellent idea of what's where on Mars, and this spring's layout of tomato plants in your back garden may or may not be available from Google Maps, but it's certainly known to some satellite survey or another. So gradually, the obvious cloud of metaphorical usages have taken over — very often in the collocation uncharted territory. Thus of the most recent half-a-dozen uses of uncharted in the NYT, all are metaphorical and four modify territory:
So, Father Malone, is it an article of faith that this new papacy is good for the Jesuits? “It’s uncharted territory,” he said, sipping the first of several cups of coffee. “It’s hard to know how it affects us other than to say we’re very proud.
At Torrington Middle School, where the two victims are in eighth grade, administrators also called an assembly to warn against online “name-calling.” “It’s not completely uncharted territory, but it’s new,” Ms. Spiegel said. “A while back it was Myspace, and then it was Facebook, and then it was sexting, and now it’s Twitter.”
So the Main Street economy is failing while Washington is piling a soaring debt burden on our descendants, unable to rein in either the warfare state or the welfare state or raise the taxes needed to pay the nation’s bills. By default, the Fed has resorted to a radical, uncharted spree of money printing.
Swing Justice Anthony Kennedy grumbled about “uncharted waters,” and the fuddy-duddies seemed to be looking for excuses not to make a sweeping ruling.
But the reality of a pope and an emeritus pope living in his shadow will probably be more complicated, a fact driven home with the recent publication in an Italian gossip magazine of paparazzi-style photos of the 85-year-old Benedict strolling with his personal secretary through the private gardens of his temporary home at Castel Gandolfo. The photographs were a vivid reminder of the uncharted territory the Vatican has entered, and the potential trouble it could bring.
BERT WHEELER and Robert Woolsey made 21 feature films together (and a couple separately) between 1929 and 1937. They were one of the most popular comedy teams of a decade that knew several great ones, and yet today they are almost unknown, except to cinephiles who make a habit of exploring the uncharted overnight territory of the Turner Classic Movies channel.
The OED's entry for unchartered — also not updated since 1921 — finds the metaphorical sense ("fig. Not authorized as by the terms of a charter; irregular, lawless") to be older than the literal one ("Not furnished with a charter; not formally privileged or constituted"):
1805 Wordsworth Ode to Duty 37 Me this unchartered freedom tires.
1863 C. Cowden Clarke Shakespeare-characters ix. 215 The unchartered wind that ‘bloweth where it listeth’.
1812 Weekly Reg. (Baltimore) 2 19/2 Those planters..who should place confidence in the paper of unchartered banks.
1818 H. Hallam View Europe Middle Ages II. viii. 320 The representation of unchartered, or at least unincorporated boroughs.
I suspect that this is an artefact of the limited historical search available to the OED's editors at the time. A quick Google Books search turn up, for example, this passage from The Scots Magazine of September 1799:
His Grace repeated, that they could not possibly get their notes ready to issue, with the necessary stamp, by the first of December, and reminded their Lordships of the number of notes for small sums the Stamp Office would have to Stamp for England, which must in some sort delay the stamping of the number that would be wanted for the unchartered banks of Scotland.
But in any case, figurative uses of unchartered are more than two centuries old, so what's wrong with "unchartered territory"?
Well, the most important thing is just the Law of Antecedent Idioms, or whatever it should be called — if you use a phrase that seems to be a mistaken approximation to an established idiom, and you don't make it clear that you're doing this on purpose, then readers will be distracted, and will probably also lower their estimation of your degree of literacy. (Note that this is almost the opposite of George Orwell's advice to "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print"…)
In addition, "unchartered territory" is an inferior metaphor, at least for scientific exploration — scientists trust that their domain of research is NOT entirely "irregular [and] lawless", but rather has regularities that are yet to be determined. What an honest scientist does is much more like an explorer mapping the unknown than like a bureaucrat or military officer imposing order on anarchy. On the other hand, some of the examples of "unchartered territory" are indeed closer to the "imposing order on chaos" metaphor e.g.
Giramondo describes Smart TVs as “unchartered territory” and says “the mind boggles” when imagining the possibilities.
But a Sleepwalking Cannibal, that's unchartered territory. We were free to make up the rules as we went along.
Being experimental does not mean that we have to do something dangerous. But it’s time to do things with our data that we haven’t done before. Some of this unchartered territory is what we call “data democracy.” The walls between departments are crumbling (or should be), and we all depend on each other’s data.
Why has the recent case management conference taken place? It was held to establish how the FSCS’ legal battle against Keydata advisers can proceed. The FSCS has brought claims against around 500 adviser firms. This is unchartered territory in terms of having one claimant and so many defendants.
In any case, "unchartered territory" is fairly common. The current Google News index finds 121 examples, compared to 470 for "uncharted territory"; and "unchartered territory" was entered into the Eggcorn Database by Ben Zimmer on 3/1/2005, with citations to several earlier discussions:
- Arnold Zwicky at Language Log (Happy Birthday, Eggcorn!)
- Erin O'Connor at Critical Mass (Malapropisms and other fun things)
- Paul Brians (Common Errors in English)
[Tip of the hat to Eric P. Smith]