Relatively unchartered territory

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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:

Obligatory screenshot:

[Tip of the hat to Eric P. Smith]


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 8:30 am

    "Uncharted" and "unchartered" are closer to being homophones (even if not exact?) for non-rhotic speakers. Beyond the one (presumably non-rhotic) BBC example, recent google news hits for "unchartered" turn up plenty of (presumably rhotic) AmEng contexts, but I wonder if there's a more historical approach that would show the substitution (i.e. unchartered where one would have expected uncharted) first arose in non-rhotic regions?

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 8:37 am

    One of the quotes above is from Anthony Kennedy in last month's oral arguments for the Supreme Court case on California's Prop 8. Here is what Justice Kennedy said, according to (transcript and audio here):

    The problem — the problem with the case is that you're really asking, particularly because of the sociological evidence you cite, for us to go into uncharted waters, and you can play with that metaphor, there's a wonderful destination, it is a cliff.

    Unsurprisingly, many news reports quoted him as saying "unchartered waters," e.g. here and here.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 8:38 am

    And of course for google news hits that are direct quotes, there's always the chance that the person quoted said "uncharted" but the journalist wrote down "unchartered," or vice versa. Don't know how to assess whether such transcription errors are equally likely in both directions or not.

  4. David L said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    I'm puzzled by the idea, from the OED, that the metaphorical sense of "unchartered" can be older than the literal one. What was the metaphor a metaphor of, before the literal meaning existed?

    [(myl) Since literal uses of chartered "Founded, privileged, or protected by charter" are older (the OED's entry, dating from 1889, has a citation from 1425), it would have been possible for someone to use "unchartered" in a figurative sense before anyone had occasion to use it in a literal sense. Not likely, though, I agree.

    On an entirely irrelevant note, it occurs to me that "unchartered freedom tires," per the Wordsworth quote, would be what libertarians and followers of Ayn Rand like to equip their cars with.

    [(myl) Not a good band name, though.]

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    Part of the problem may be that "uncharted" is not only obsolete in the geographical sense b/c the whole world has now been mapped, but "chart" in the sense of "map" is these days I believe confined almost exclusively to nautical jargon, and it seems likely that only a fairly small minority of speakers (via service in the Navy, participation in yachting, obsessive reading of Horatio Hornblower-type historical novels, or whatever) have that sense in their reasonably active vocabulary. (I guess on Star Trek Capt. Kirk sometimes tells Lt. Sulu to "chart a course" but I don't know if the science-fiction extended use covers the noun, and the verbal sense there maybe presupposes an existing map not the initial exploration needed to generate one.) "Chart" in the dominant sense of non-cartographic table/graph/list presenting data doesn't get you smoothly to the same sense of "uncharted" that's needed for the idiom here.

    OTOH, "chartered" I expect also may be primarily used these days in ways that make the arguably-relevant meaning here opaque. E.g. in AmEng a chartered bus or plane is just one specially hired for the occasion, so an unchartered one is not some sort of rogue/bootleg/unlicensed operation, but rather one in regular scheduled service that you can buy a perfectly licit ticket for. I suppose in the UK "chartered" is still used for professional licensure, e.g. AmEng "certified public accountant" = BrEng "chartered accountant." But would anyone refer other than jocularly to an imposter or "disbarred" accountant as being "unchartered"?

  6. Jens Fiederer said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 11:25 am

    Perhaps this line of research will finally provide a firm foundation for the location of the "crockus", which we all know is so much larger in female children than in male children.

  7. Ian Myles Slater said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

    "I don't know if the science-fiction extended use covers the noun, and the verbal sense there maybe presupposes an existing map not the initial exploration needed to generate one."

    If memory serves, I've seen Andre Norton's novel "Uncharted Stars" (1969) listed as "Unchartered Stars" on more than one occasion, including order forms for the old Ace Books editions.The title is figurative, since the stars in question aren't unknown to star-charts, just not on record as visited.)

    A few years earlier, H. Beam Piper dodged any such confusion (going the other direction) in "The Other Human Race" (1964; also published as "Fuzzy Sapiens"). The Chartered Zarathustra Company lost its original charter when the planet Zarathustra was discovered to be home to a previously unsuspected intelligent species (see "Little Fuzzy," 1962), and it resumes operations as the Charterless Zarathustra Company.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

    The Gilligan's Island theme song, the lyrics of which are probably known by heart by a frighteningly high percentage of Americans in certain generational cohorts, refers to the castaways washing up on an "uncharted desert isle." Sure enough, if you google "unchartered desert isle," it's Out There.

  9. dw said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 2:26 pm


    "Uncharted" and "unchartered" are only homophones for nonrhotic speakers who also have the weak vowel merger.

    This would include Southern Hemisphere accents, and also some (but probably not most) English regional accents.

  10. Lazar said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

    @dw: I think that would also include most non-rhotic Americans.

  11. Eric P Smith said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

    Mark: Thanks for airing this.

    On the pronunciations: I have just returned home from a social group that included 8 members with non-rhotic accents from various parts of England. They all kindly assisted me. None of them have the weak vowel merger and hence all of them pronounced "unchartered" and "uncharted" differently. Some of them made a distinction in the length (duration) of the vowel. Some made a distinction in the quality of the vowel, "uncharted" having the final vowel [ɪ] and "unchartered" having a more central vowel. Some made both distinctions.

    All were older people, and among speakers from England I suspect that the merger is more common in younger people.

  12. maidhc said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

    In the history of Canada, the Hudson's Bay Company was given a charter to a huge amount of territory, which they proceeded to explore and chart. So the charter came first.

    I think there were some other companies with similar arrangements. Jamestown? Massachusetts?

  13. richardelguru said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 6:46 am

    David L
    "unchartered freedom tires,"
    But, as an English gentleman, wouldn't Wordsworth have written: "unchartered freedom tyres,"

  14. Brian T said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 8:01 am

    Back when I used to edit the horoscopes for the newspaper, I came across this unusually stupid advice: "When sailing into uncharted waters, be sure to take a map." The heavens control our lives but they don't know what "uncharted" means.

  15. Rodger C said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 8:12 am

    @Brian T:

    He had bought a large map representing the sea,
    Without the least vestige of land:
    And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
    A map they could all understand.

    "What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
    Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
    So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
    "They are merely conventional signs!

    "Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
    But we've got our brave Captain to thank:
    (So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best–
    A perfect and absolute blank!"

    This was charming, no doubt; but they shortly found out
    That the Captain they trusted so well
    Had only one notion for crossing the ocean,
    And that was to tingle his bell.

    –Lewis Carroll, "The Hunting of the Snark"

  16. Keith said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 8:16 am

    Deformations of the kind "uncharted" -> "unchartered" can easily be generated by spelling checkers. Although Firefox tries to correct a misspelt "unchatered" to "uncharted", I find that OpenOffice proposed the following list.

  17. dw said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 11:41 am


    I know you're joking, but I'm fact the spelling "tire", for the wheel fixture, was still current in Britain at Wordsworth's time.

    It wasn't until well into the twentieth century that BrE spelling hardened around "tyre".

  18. dw said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 11:44 am

    "I'm" should be "in" — damn you, autocorrect!

  19. Boris said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

    Re Star Trek, "Star charts" are in common use in Star Trek, and I think charting a course is a common phrase (although I don't know whether it was popularized by Star Trek.

  20. Mr Punch said,

    April 12, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

    "Certified Public Accountant" in the US, yes, but also "Chartered Financial Analyst." The latter designation is "global," but I don't know where it originated.

  21. JS said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

    Oh, oh — I was struck by the linked BBC front page a while back and captured it; looks like it may belong in here… but google search suggests this may be a fairly widespread non-rhotic variant? True homophones for such speakers?


  22. JS said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

    ^ issue linking to photobucket…

    BBC headline on Olympic medal-counts read "WHO CONTROLS THE GOLD? They are the sporting world's most sort-after prize," etc.

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