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When I was a kid the highest TV channel we could get was channel 12. On Saturday mornings while my parents slept-in a little bit we were allowed to watch cartoons.
These days there’s the cartoon network so every minute of the day and night is Saturday morning.
The cartoons on TV took their name from cartoons in newspapers but although we might think of cartoons as being a more frivolous species of animated film, the first cartoons were hard hitting political cartoons.
Actually it was the fact that they were hard hitting political criticisms that got them being called cartoons in the first place.
So let me roll the clock back to medieval England.
The government of the day used an ancient method of accounting to track taxes owed. A series of notches were carved along the side of a stick then the stick was split in two so that both parties had a matching record of what was owed.
By the early 1800s a new invention called numeracy (the mathematical equivalent to literacy) had made these tally sticks obsolete. But the British government had piled up an enormous store of old records in the form of kindling.
What to do with the stuff? Burn it of course.
So some workmen were assigned the task. They stuffed the stove in the basement of the Houses of Parliament full of this diminutive lumber and went home from work at the end of the day.
Little sticks burn hotter than big sticks because more air can get in, and a hotter fire in the basement of an old wooden building burns even hotter when it escapes the firebox.
Bottom line was there was no work to go back to in the morning, neither for the laborers nor the parliamentarians.
So the Parliament Buildings were rebuilt.
Once that was done it was only right that in 1843 fine paintings should be commissioned to hang on the bare walls of the new Parliament. Famous and not so famous artists were invited to submit proposals of the portraits and paintings they would like to sell to the government.
These proposals weren’t written proposals but quick approximations of what the final paintings might look like. They were sketched out full size on paper.
This technique of showing what a painting might eventually look like had been used for centuries and because it used paper it had been called cartone in Italian from the Latin word charta which in turn came from Greek khartes originally meaning paper from papyrus.
From Italian it got into French and then English by 1671 as cartoon.
All the Parliamentary construction and art purchasing I mentioned was costing a lot of money and although the tally sticks were no longer in use taxes certainly were. Punch Magazine thought perhaps expenses were getting out of hand.
Punch already had satirical drawings that were a centerpiece of the magazine but they weren’t called cartoons.
In honor of the art purchase Punch offered up its own proposals for paintings—except these were critical of the expenditure while poor people were starving.
Just like all the legitimate artists’ proposals the Punch proposals were called cartoons, and the label stuck.
Thereafter all satirical drawings were called cartoons.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.
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