Famous Sayings: #91 — ‘Uncharted Territory’

December 9, 2017

It looks like we are now in uncharted territory.

uncharted territory, unchartered, uncharted waters, murky waters, famous sayings
In the literal sense, uncharted territory cannot be found on the map. In the figurative sense, there is no manual for those kinds of situations. Image via Pixabay.

I’m late with this, but I couldn’t let this week go by without another installment of my Famous Sayings posts.

This week, I’m looking at a term that really applies to current events — and this whole year, to be exact. We are living in uncertain times, but this is a very familiar term. Who first use it, and when?

Who First Used the Phrase ‘Uncharted Territory’?

Unfortunately, that is unclear. When I first looked up the phrase “uncharted territory,” there were no definitive pages on the subject. While the definitions I found on dictionary websites (like Merriam-Webster, Cambridge English Dictionary, and the Online Etymology Dictionary were somewhat helpful, there was no definite date on the usage of the term “uncharted territory.”

At one point, I came across this quote attributed to motivational speaker Leonardo F. Buscaglia:

Life is uncharted territory. It reveals its story one moment at a time.

However, that was an undated quote and if it is his, it may have come sometime in the 1960’s at the earliest. Surely, the phrase “uncharted territory” was coined sometime earlier.

This is what I was able to glean:

The word “uncharted” was likely first used in the 19th century. The word may have first been used as an adjective in the 1890’s.

Here are two examples of the phrase cited from the Oxford English Dictionary (via Grammarphobia):

“To establish the latitude and longitude of uncharted places” (from Popular Science Monthly, 1895).

“In tracking the Siberian coast through the month of August, many uncharted islands were discovered” (from the Edinburgh Review, 1897).

That was about 50 years after the word “chart” was used as a verb (1842) and about 40 years after “chart” was used as an adjective (1857). And the use of the word “uncharted” in these examples was literal.


The phrase “uncharted territory/waters” can be messed up by a typo. Sometimes, the word “unchartered” is used, which completely changes the meaning, but doesn’t make much sense. However, the typo might be the source of the correct phrase’s use in the figurative sense.

Who First Used the Phrase ‘Unchartered Territory’ (Figuratively)?

“The misuse [of the word ‘unchartered’] has been in print for over a century and a half.” It’s likely the result of an unintentional misspelling that others picked up and repeated.

The same Grammarphobia page I mentioned above cited a sentence from Shawmut: Or, the Settlement of Boston by the Puritan Pilgrims (1845) by Charles Kittredge True as containing the “unchartered” typo. From Page 86:

His prudence, patience, courage and energy made him the successful pilot of the ship of state in the unchartered waters into which she was launched.

The person mentioned here was John Winthrop, who was elected governor of Massachusetts in the 17th century.

This was of course a figurative usage of the phrase, although it was clear that the author, True, meant to use the word “uncharted.”

Now, What Does ‘Uncharted Territory/Waters’ Mean?

In the literal sense, uncharted territory or waters are those which were just discovered. The territory or body of water could not be found on a current map.

In the figurative sense, uncharted territory is unfamiliar. For example, when someone is dealing with a crisis, they might say that they’re in uncharted territory. That might also say the same thing when getting a promotion or they attain a highly level of success than they’ve experienced before. It’s similar to someone experiencing a “brave new world.”

By the way, “murky waters” is a related term, since it deals with the unfamiliar. However, that type of situations is potentially dangerous (“murky/uncharted”). Unfortunately, this also applies to this year, too.

How Do I Relate These Terms?

I am thinking current events and the political climate in the West. I am looking at what is going on in the Middle East, what is going on with the scandals in Hollywood, government, the media, what is happening with net neutrality, and what is happening with people who are now paying close attention.

In particular, these things grab my attention:

  • The election of Donald Trump has faced me to question the status quo, the government, and it’s made me realize just how fragile democracy is.
  • Trump is making a move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital if Israel. While some might agree with that, this move might incite terrorists in the region.
  • The #MeToo movement is in full force, as more women and men are gaining the courage to speak up about sexual harassment. However, that might not be enough to stop Roy Moore from being elected because of blind ideology.
  • The fight over net neutrality is forcing people to think of solutions in the face of a corrupted bureaucracy that is willfully ignoring the public.
  • What’s more is that this Republican tax bill is similar to the net neutrality. The bill and the vote to undo privacy protections for ISP customers are illustrating how craven and corrupt these lawmakers are.

The concerns and protests of the American public is falling on deaf ears. The desire to “win” has pushed people to admit that they prefer a child predator — and even Beelzebub — to a Democrat! And some Democrats, for their part, are pushing away people to the left of them, even at the cost of losing even more. I don’t believe I have ever seen this type of behavior in American government in my life, meaning we are truly in uncharted territory here.

Works Cited

“Leo F. Buscaglia Quotes.” ThinkExist.com. Web. Retrieved 8 Dec 2017. <http://thinkexist.com/quotation/life_is_uncharted_territory-it_reveals_its_story/148394.html>.

“murky/uncharted waters Definition in the Cambrige English Dictionary.” Cambridge English Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. Web. Retrieved 9 Dec 2017. <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/murky-uncharted-waters>.

“On ‘unchartered’ waters?” Grammarphobia. 7 Sept 2017. Weblog. Retrieved 9 Dec 2017. <https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2016/09/unchartered.html>.

Short, Steven. “Biography.” The World of Leo F. Buscaglia. Web. Retrieved 9 Dec 2017. <http://www.buscaglia.com/biography>.

True, Charles Kittredge. Shawmut: or, The settlement of Boston by the Puritan pilgrims. Boston: Charles Waite. 1847. Originally in Print (Accessed via the web). Pages 8586. Retrieved 9 Dec 2017.

“Uncharted.” Merriam-Webster. Last Updated 27 Nov 2017. Web. Retrieved 9 Dec 2017. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/uncharted>.

“Uncharted Territory/waters.” Merriam-Webster. Last Updated 15 Nov 2017. Web. Retrieved 9 Dec 2017. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/uncharted%20territory/waters>.

Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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