"An unchartered situation for all of us"

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Ed Silverman, "An unchartered situation for all of us’: From shipping containers to security concerns, a Covid-19 vaccine supply chain takes shape", STAT 9/8/2020 [emphasis added]:

The pandemic has prompted the U.S. government and others across the globe to secure huge numbers of doses from Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers, who are pushing clinical trial timelines like never before in order to get their vaccines ready for use as soon as possible. One or more of these vaccines may be approved by regulators here and abroad in the months ahead.

The effort to distribute those vaccines has accelerated just as quickly. Just as container makers are squeezing more out of their production plants, vaccine makers are busy modeling transportation routes and storage conditions in many countries. Wholesalers are lining up warehouse space and trucks. And freight forwarders and airport managers are expanding security for what will immediately become the world’s hottest commodity.

“I’m more than 30 years in the business and thought I’d seen everything, but it’s an unchartered situation for all of us,” said Larry St. Onge, global life sciences and health care sector president at DHL, which provides a range of transportation services for pharmaceutical products. “The scale of the challenge is going to be very large and there will be a pressing need to eliminate bottlenecks.”

Here unchartered ("Not authorized as by the terms of a charter; irregular, lawless") has apparently been substituted for uncharted ("not recorded or plotted on a map, chart, or plan; unknown").

Or has it?

Both words would be metaphorical extensions of terms in senses that are rare in contemporary usage. There are no longer any "uncharted waters" or "uncharted regions", at least on the surface of the earth and its oceans, although uncharted remains fairly common (1.46 per MW in COCA), mostly in figurative or historical contexts. And we've all heard of chartering a bus or a plane, and "charter schools", and so on — but unchartered is an order of magnitude rarer than uncharted (0.12 per MW in COCA), and most of the examples in COCA (70%) are instances of "unchartered waters" or "unchartered territory", with "terrain" and "area" and so on accounting for many of the remainder.

So we can say at least that "unchartered waters/territory/terrain/situation" has become such a common eggcorn that it's almost standard. The figurative senses of unchartered ("irregular, lawless") fit the context reasonably well. If there's any problem, it's that many readers will do a double take because of the echo of the (more common) fixed phrases with uncharted.


  1. Allan from Iowa said,

    September 14, 2020 @ 8:36 am

    Non-rhotic readers might not notice anything unusual.

  2. Doreen said,

    September 14, 2020 @ 9:54 am

    Another eggcorn I often see from (presumably) non-rhotic Britons is "top-draw" (entertainment, talent, etc.) instead of top-drawer.

    Google tells me there is a company by the name of Top Draw Entertainment Inc. based in New York.

  3. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 14, 2020 @ 10:17 am

    I surmise that St. Onge did not actually say "unchartered"; more likely he said "uncharted" and Silverman misheard it. The converse, that St. Onge said (or typed) "unchartered" and Silverman let it stand, seems less plausible as it requires both of them to be subject to this particular eggcorn.

  4. Jason said,

    September 14, 2020 @ 10:39 am

    @Allen from Iowa

    Yes, they're complete homophones for me. Presumably "uncharted" was meant but there's no way to be sure.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    September 14, 2020 @ 1:03 pm

    Jason, do you not have final /tɪd/ in "uncharted" but /təd/ in "unchartered" ?

  6. David Marjanović said,

    September 14, 2020 @ 1:04 pm

    Non-rhotic readers might not notice anything unusual.

    That depends on whether they also have the rabbit/abbot merger – if the acoustics are good.

  7. Tobias said,

    September 14, 2020 @ 4:12 pm

    Or, coming from a logistics expert, these are areas that no one has ever chartered a freight truck to.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 14, 2020 @ 4:41 pm

    FWIW Mr. St. Onge seems to be a rhotic speaker himself, although the first clip of him talking I came across begins with a very non-rhotic interviewer doing the introduction before you get to hear the man himself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv_lnUdPGwM

    The journalist Mr. Silverman (per another youtube clip I found) is also rhotic, although I guess his byline on the article doesn't exclude the possibility that the quote from St. Onge came to him (and was transcribed by) some unidentified intermediary whose rhoticity cannot be conclusively presumed.

  9. djw said,

    September 14, 2020 @ 9:30 pm

    Doreen, the Top Draw Entertainment company may be playing around with "top drawer" in the senses of "best quality" and "the one pulling the most in," and with "top draw" as "drawing the best card" and "attracting the best [entertainers, crowds, whatever]." I think its pretty good wordplay, but I'm a plugger.

  10. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 14, 2020 @ 10:23 pm

    I entered uncharted » unchartered into the Eggcorn Database back in 2005, citing a 2004 Language Log post by Arnold Zwicky.

  11. maidhc said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 4:07 am

    In the 1960s John Lennon came out with a book of poems, musings and artworks.

    It was suggested (I think by Ringo) that it should be called "In his Own Write and Draw". However the publisher thought the joke was too Liverpudlian for the general public, so it came out as "In his Own Write". I still think that was a missed opportunity.

    I still like to say (mostly to the total bewilderment of onlookers) "Gruddley pod, gruddley pod, the train seemed to say, we're on our holidays". Or I would if we ever again get to have any holidays.

    Umm … "In his own right-hand drawer".

  12. Kate Bunting said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 5:49 am

    "Chest of draws" (and similar) is a very common eggcorn here in the UK.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 8:13 am

    I think the publisher was correct, Maidhc — without your kind "Umm" gloss, this effete southerner would never have understood the intended pun …

  14. ajay said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 9:02 am

    Or, coming from a logistics expert, these are areas that no one has ever chartered a freight truck to.

    I would have thought that, to a logistician, "unchartered" would refer to the freight trucks, rather than to the territory. If no one's chartered them, they're just sitting around unchartered. (Not that DHL charters trucks, I should think. It owns its own fleet.)

    Blake's "London" uses "chartered" to mean "subject to rules and regulations":

    I wandered through each chartered street,
    Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
    A mark in every face I meet,
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

    The poem's first two lines were recently, in a staggering display of ignorance, used to open a "visit London" video made by the mayor's office. The v/o faded out before line three.

  15. ktschwarz said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 10:13 am

    uncharted » unchartered was also previously discussed at Language Log, 2013. Some comments on non-rhotacism and the weak vowel merger there as well.

    (I found that post by guessing that "unchartered desert isle" would be out there on the web and googling it — it is, and one of the top hits is LL!)

  16. Robert Coren said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 10:50 am

    My husband, born and raised in New York City and normally rhotic, says "draw" for "drawer". I have always found this puzzling.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 12:29 pm

    For a rhotic speaker, does "drawer" (the thing that slides, not the person who draws) have one or two syllables ?

  18. Rodger C said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 12:52 pm

    @ajay: And the first draft of the poem reads "dirty" for "chartered."

  19. Rodger C said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 12:54 pm

    @Robert Coren: I'll bet this originated in a nonrhotic dialect (not necessarily one he ever spoke himself) in which "drawer" ceased to be perceived as a separate word from "draw."

  20. DaveK said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 1:01 pm

    I’m in the mid-Atlantic region of the US and I usually hear it as one syllable, occasionally with two although it takes some conscious effort for me to use two.

  21. RfP said,

    September 15, 2020 @ 2:43 pm


    I grew up in the San Francisco area (we’re a pretty rhotic bunch out here), and for me “drawer” rhymes with “floor” and “more.”

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2020 @ 6:14 am

    The same rhymes obtain in the non-rhotic parts of the UK. Interestingly, John Wells gives the primary <Br.E> pronunciation of "drawer" (one who draws) as /ˈdrɔːr ə/, with a very obvious intrusive "r" in the audio (which I hear as /ˈdrɔː rə/).

  23. Georgew said,

    September 16, 2020 @ 4:00 pm

    Arizona: drawer has one syllable and rhymes with floor. Years ago, we hired a handyman named Dror to repair a drawer. We found this auspicious.

  24. Robert Coren said,

    September 17, 2020 @ 10:02 am

    @RFP: Similarly for me, although there might be a hint of a schwa before the r.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 11:05 am

    I just got an email from a local business reopening for in-person clients for the first time since the pandemic started, which included the line:

    This is our first week, we are navigating "uncharterd" waters with you!

    Beyond the apparent typo, I'm not sure if the quotation marks are the sort added for "emphasis" which tend to attract prescriptivist ire as non-standard and low-class or if they're meant to flag "uncharterd" as a novel/innovative word that may be new to the reader.

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