What's in a Word | All Blogs


Soot ‘n’ spoofs

By Debra Dobbins

In the Middle Ages, according to Wikipedia, the meaning of “cartoon” was quite different from what we now understand it to be. Then, the word “described a preparatory drawing for a piece of art, such as a painting, fresco, tapestry, or stained glass window.”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “cartoon” came into English from the French carton, from the Italian cartone, which meant “strong, heavy paper, pasteboard.” This was the same material used for making boxes — hence the word “carton.”

Artists would make preliminary drawings on this heavy paper and sometime punch small holes into the outlines of objects in the drawings, according to Wikipedia. “[A] bag of soot was then patted or 'pounced' over the cartoon, held against the wall to leave black dots on the plaster ('pouncing'). Cartoons by painters, such as the Raphael Cartoons in London and examples by Leonardo da Vinci, are highly prized in their own right.“

The word “cartoon” attained its more modern meaning in 1843, thanks to Punch, a British weekly magazine started in 1841. Punch used the term to describe some of its satirical drawings, particularly those of John Leech, again according to Wikipedia. “The first of these parodied the preparatory cartoons for grand historical frescoes in the then-new Palace of Westminster.”

John Leech's "Cartoon no.1: Substance and Shadow" (1843) satirized preparatory cartoons for frescoes in the Palace of Westminster
Art and caption courtesy of Wikipedia

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