At the Wording Desk
Magna Carta & Cognate Words like Chart, Charter, Cartoon, Card, Carte Blanche, Cartel & Cartridge
William, by the grace of God etymologist, purveyor of verbal origins to the gentry, word jester clad in scribe’s motley before the court of English, sole proprietary legatee of this website’s residuum, redactor of a delectable word chronicle, composer of its manifold wealth and its singular repository of our tongue’s word hoard ── to loyal readers, devoted fans, fawning toadies, lick-spittle flatterers, abject cringers, stooped fart-catchers, ass-kissing lackeys, butt-bussing adulators, suck-up flunkies, door-mat sycophants and sundry persons of life stations too low to be here denominated – greetings!
I thought it apt to begin with a parody of the opening lines of Magna Carta, since today we will examine the history and cognateness of words like card, carton, cartoon, chart, charter, carta, carte blanche, cartel and cartridge.
The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh and The Duke of Cambridge visited Runnymede, site of the signing of the charter, on 15 June, 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.
All the ‘chart’ words in European languages, ancient and modern, begin in hieroglyphics with one of the ancient Egyptian words for papyrus, namely tche-t ‘papyrus plant’ and tchamaa ‘a scroll of papyrus,’ this origin first suggested by one of the great etymologists of the twentieth century, the late Eric Partridge in his still boundlessly rich book Origins and in its updated second edition.
First, from the feminine Egyptian noun tchet, the ancient Greeks made their borrowing by adding sigma /s/, a Greek noun suffix, to obtain chartes ‘a leaf of papyrus, a writing’ and charte ‘a piece of paper.’
Then the Romans borrowed the Greek word to give two Latin variants charta ‘map, significant piece of paper’ and carta ‘a written letter, papyrus.’ As is evident, from that Latin duo arose early French carte, a word that evolved multiple senses.
Think of une carte de France ‘a map of France,’ jouer aux cartes ‘to play cards,’ selecting individual foods from a menu a la carte, sending une carte postale ‘a postcard.’ If you give someone free rein, free choice to select one from among many choices you give them une carte blanche, literally ‘a white card’ but meaning a blank card upon which they may inscribe their wishes. In a wallet or purse you may have une carte à puce ‘a smart card’ or une carte de crédit ‘a credit card.’ Paying the briefest of visits to dear rich Aunt Marie, you may enjoy a 24-hour holiday from your long prison sentence on une carte journalière ‘a day pass.’
An Italian artist might have drawn a quick sketch on pasteboard, preliminary to an oil painting. This was termed a cartone, which is carta with a common Italian augmentative suffix –one so that its prime meaning is a BIG piece of pasteboard. English then received a name for a quick comic drawing, a cartoon. Another English word from the same root is carton. It might be made of cardboard. Card is an Englishing of the French carte. The projectile in revolvers and some other guns is a cartridge, originally a gunpowder charge wrapped in paper to be easier to use, from French cartouche and Italian cartuccia. And let us not forget that boon to Champollion as he first deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs in modern times and found that many royal names were encased in a convenient oval or oblong line he called a cartouche, much as today while editing we might circle an important word.
Magna Carta was, of course, courtly Latin for ‘the Great Charter,’ signed perforce by King John at Runnymede Meadow in 1215 CE. Note that a runny mede IS a meadow, so there is a flyspeck of redundancy in the place name.
Note also that, only a few years later, King John had contrived to have had murdered most of the earls who had forced him to sign Magna Carta.
Vivat! Vivat Rex! As the Latin says. “May the King Live!” But not, perhaps, for too prolonged a senctitude?
April 08, 2016
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A reluctant King John signs Magna Carta at Runnymede Meadow in 1215 CE.