Last week’s deadly attacks in Paris gruesomely reminded us of the true power of cartoons. Charlie Hedbo‘s cartoonists were tragic targets of terrorism, yet their work will endure as irrepressible, if complicated, expressions of freedom. Raised in rallies and inked on media covers, the pencil has come to symbolize that freedom but when we look to the etymology of cartoon, we put that pencil to paper.

"Cartoon." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Cartoon.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Despite any associations with Saturday morning, the first cartoon in the English language was high art. In 1684, we have reference to a “large Cartoone,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a drawing on stout paper, made as a design for a painting of the same size.” Over the next centuries, these drawings became transferred to other ones: By 1843, London’s Punch magazine applied the word to its full-page, humorous illustrations on current events. A cartoon in the animated sense is first attested in 1916.

English draws cartoon from the French carton, from the Italian cartone, a kind of heavy paper, or cardboard. This cartone is a form of carta, “paper.” Specifically, cartone is an augmentative form (in contrast to diminutive), with -one here conveying greater size than that of an ordinary leaf of paper. This -one is from a Latin morpheme and is mirrored in French’s -on and Spanish’s –ón, whose descendants populate the English tongue in everything from balloon to spittoon. Such augmentation makes sense when we consider the sense of strong, heavy paper preserved in cartoon’s earlier applications.

Now, the Italian carta is from Latin’s charta, a “sheet of papyrus” or “thin sheet of metal.” This is directly copied from Greek’s khartes (χάρτης), “leaf of paper” and “made from the separated layers of the papyrus,” Liddell and Scott tell us. Some etymologists suspect the Greek is from Egyptian, incredibly. Eric Partridge points us in particular to tche-t, “papyrus,” and tchamaa, “roll of papyrus” or “document.” (Paper is from papyrus, itself believed to be Egyptian in origin). Others see a connection to a Proto-Indo-European *g(e)r-, “to scratch,” which is what one would have done to mark on papyrus.

Cartoon keeps good etymological company. The Magna Carta, Latin for “Great Charter,” is the 1215 foundation for the constitutional protection of liberties. A legacy of the French Revolution, France’s Charter of 1814 functioned as a sort of Bill of Rights. Both carta and charter are from Latin’s charta–as are cartography, cardà la carte, and cartels, adding globes, games, greetings, get-well’s, gastronomy, and gangs to our governmental derivatives. Carton, cartridge, and chart are also cognates.

The origin of cartoon is nothing to laugh at. Nor is it anything like cardboard in spite of being like the word cardboard. Its possible roots in Ancient Egypt is astonishing, too, if we take a long and wide historical perspective. In its own small, etymological way, cartoon embodies pluralism. Pluralism, which Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoonists championed–and died for.

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