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People have been mistakenly saying "unchartered" instead of "uncharted" when speaking informally, but now even major news networks are doing it. E.g.: CTV News — 'Unchartered territory': Ont. adds 4,227 new COVID-19 cases, second-highest ever - YouTube.

Since "unchartered territory" does have a real meaning, it made me wonder, are there any historical uses of this expression being used correctly?

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  • What’s the “real” meaning of “unchartered territory” if not the descriptivist one? Relating to charter schools?
    – Laurel
    Apr 9, 2021 at 21:32
  • Isn’t it fair to say that all territories owned by a king, prior to him granting them to someone under charter, can be called unchartered territories.
    – Jim
    Apr 9, 2021 at 21:37
  • Yes, they mean uncharted, but bear in mind that there were places in the New World where groups of people had charters to land, if memory serves.
    – Lambie
    Apr 9, 2021 at 23:10
  • When the US bought Louisiana and Alaska, there were almost no leases, deeds, etc. on any of the land. They were unchartered territories. I'm asking if this expression has historically ever been used in that sense, or only ever as a mistake. Apr 10, 2021 at 0:30
  • 1
    This question received 2 down-votes and 2 votes-to-close, while the only answer to it received 2 up-votes even though it failed to answer the question. What am I missing? Apr 11, 2021 at 0:19

2 Answers 2

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I've now found an instance of what I was looking for in this book written 182 years ago, in 1839.

This is from page 14:

In the establishment of the new States the navigation of rivers is declared to be at all times free to all citizens of the United States, without payment of any tolls or duties; and at the admission of Louisiana as a State in 1812 it was a condition, that all its laws should be promulgated, its records preserved, and its judicial and legislative written proceedings conducted, in the language in which the laws and the judicial and legislative written proceedings of the United States are now published.

The public lands belonging to the general body of the Republic, and at the disposal of Congress, were composed, 1st. Of the unchartered territory acquired under the Treaty of Great Britain. 2d. Of various cessions, by individual States, of unoccupied lands situated within the limits of their charters* [footnote listing dates each state surrendered its State lands to Congress]. And 3d. Of the territories of Louisiana and Florida, ceded by France and Spain.

When the Indian titles are extinguished by treaties with their tribes, surveys are made of the country, and it is divided into townships of six miles square, which townships are again sub-divided into thirty-six sections (of one mile square), half sections, &c., and the land is offered for sale at the district land-offices, a reservation being generally made of one section (or one square mile) in each township, to form a fund for education.

A Few Notes Respecting the United States of North America in Relation to Their Constitution, Their Progress, and the Stocks of the Different States. — C. Stokes, 1839.

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The following extract from M-W suggests that the erroneous usage of unchartered instead of uncharted is sometime found in expression such as unchartered territory:

The adjective uncharted describes something that is not recorded or plotted on a map, chart, or plan. Uncharted waters are those parts of the ocean that have never been mapped, or in some cases never explored at all, which can be hazardous for sailors to navigate. Phrases such as uncharted territory or uncharted waters figuratively describe a situation that is unfamiliar or never encountered before.

The phrase is sometimes encountered as unchartered waters. Unchartered is its own (somewhat rare) adjective, a word meaning "not granted or issued a charter." Charter has a number of meanings, most of them pertaining to contracts and documents that define rights (as in the UN charter or a city charter). There is also a sense referring to a contractual agreement to lease something, such as a bus or yacht. So unchartered might describe something that has not been hired out (in this example, in contrast to something that has):

  • Next morning, in Glentinebay, on the south shore of Scotland, they fell in with a revenue wherry. It was the practice of such craft to board merchant vessels. The Ranger was disguised as a merchantman, presenting a broad drab-colored belt all round her hull; under the coat of a Quaker, concealing the intent of a Turk. It was expected that the chartered rover would come alongside the unchartered one. But the former took to flight, her two lug sails staggering under a heavy wind, which the pursuing guns of the Ranger pelted with a hail-storm of shot. The wherry escaped, spite the severe cannonade. — Herman Melville, Israel Potter, 1855

So we sometimes see unchartered in front of territory or waters where one would expect to see uncharted. The confusion is somewhat understandable. Charter might make one think of yachts and scheduled voyages in places routinely traveled, so unchartered could suggest to some a voyage into the unknown. But generally speaking, the use of unchartered in place of uncharted is regarded as an error.

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    Yes, but what I'm looking for is instances where "unchartered territory" was used correctly. Apr 10, 2021 at 0:31
  • I looked briefly on NGram and didn’t find any.
    – Xanne
    Apr 10, 2021 at 3:44
  • @RayButterworth - what do you mean by correctly? With reference to “charter” ?
    – user 66974
    Apr 10, 2021 at 7:14
  • @user66974, yes, I'm looking for non-contrived examples where someone has written "unchartered territory" and has used it correctly, not as a mistake for "uncharted territory". Apr 10, 2021 at 12:13

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