The Etymology of “Cartoon”

“Cartoon” (1670s) first referred to the heavy paper on which preliminary sketches for artwork were made. While political cartoons and caricatures (literally “an overloading,” from caricare “to load; exaggerate”) are much older, “cartoon” was applied to them around 1843, then to animations c. 1916.

The Italian word cartone—which also influences the contemporary word “carton” (as in packaging), likely by way of the French carton—referred to the heavy paper or pasteboard on which artists would sketch and plan out their larger works. From the 1670s to the mid-1800s, the English word “cartoon” referred to this paper. The -oon ending is a common English adaptation of French and Italian words ending in -on and -one (e.g., balloon, buffoon, macaroon).

Of course, cartoons as an art form are as old as cave drawings, in which artists would create the impression of motion by illustrating animals and human figures with multiple superimposed legs. See the cave drawings at Lascauxfor the most famous historical examples of this technique. Egyptian art also commonly included proto-animations, such as this mural found in a 4,000-year-old burial chamber that depicts a wrestling match.

The practice of drawing exaggerated figures also extends back to the days of cave drawings, but was popularized by Italian masters including Da Vinci in the 1400s.

Political cartoons and caricatures (caricatura) became particularly popular in the 1700s in Italy. The source and reason for the “overloading” sense of “caricature” is the Vulgar Latin carricare “to load a wagon or cart,” from Latin carrus “two-wheeled wagon”—also the source of “carpenter.”

Political cartoons have also been popular throughout American history, with some of the most iconic political cartoons from colonial days appearing in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette.

Satirical political cartoons boomed both before and during the French Revolution as well. The Library of Congress paints a fascinating visual history of the revolution via cartoons here.

1866 Punch cartoon, The Sewing-Machine. Caption:  Draper. “A most wonderful invention, indeed, mum, and it really executes the work so efficiently and quickly that, ‘pon my word, I think there’s nothing left for the ladies to do now but to improve their intellects!”

Punch, also known as The London Charivari, was a weekly British satire and humor magazine founded in 1841, and it is credited with popularizing the word “cartoon” in reference to editorial drawings and humorous illustrations. You can find the Punch cartoon archives here.

Animation as we think of it today began with the invention of the Magic Lantern by Christiaan Huygens in 1659—or arguably the earlier Camera Obscura, a tyle of pinhole camera. Although many others experimented with animations using puppetry, stop motion and shadowplay before, it may have been animator and newspaper cartoonist Windsor McCay whose work influenced the application of the word “cartoon” to animated short films by 1916. His short films Little Nemo (1911) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) employed two different early animation techniques that would come to influence contemporary animation.

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