A partial, essentialist, and incorrect etymology for “map”

Here’s an instance of a rather contorted and essentialist definition of “map.” Even though the definition seems to be in line with post-1980 conceptual developments in map studies, it can only be valid if considered from the ideal of cartography that remains very much in force.

Specifically, Emanuele Frixa (2018) contributed an essay on geographical approaches to a collection on “representations of origin of place”; the theme is an intriguing one, addressing as it does a combination of sense of place, personal origins, migration, children’s acculturation, and the construction of “home.” Within this broad concept, Frixa argued that maps are one means by which children can imagine and remember a distant home. In doing so, he ends up grappling with the (to me) fundamental realization that the ideal of cartography obscures the different ways in which humans think about and represent spatial relations. Unfortunately, Frixa only remains on the cusp of developing a processual approach to mapping because he remains bound to an essentialist definition of “map.”

It is this definition that drew me to his essay in the first place. His essay popped up during an insomniac online search for recent literature. I was immediately drawn to the abstract, in which Frixa stated that he had taken “inspiration from the etymology of the map—that is to say ‘an object used to carry things’” (Frixa 2018, 49). Given that this etymology seems to have nothing in common with how map historians have understood the word’s etymology, I was intrigued.

The specific passage of interest is as follows:

The word map comes from the Latin mappa—though its origin is Phoenician; it was used by Quintilian to mean the tablecloth or napkin used by guests to wrap up left-overs to be taken with them. It is on these linen cloths—more resistant than paper—that for centuries terrestrial space was represented. Though the material used for maps has subsequently changed, the word has remained the same to this day.

The original meaning of the term—a piece of cloth used to take things away—is important, because it is precisely this kind of action that defines the representation of places of origin. Through their spatialization on paper and with the aid of memory that preserves some of the features of the places of origin, these maps become “objects which have the properties of being mobile, but also immutable, presentable, readable and combinable with each other.” (Frixa 2018, 51, quoting Latour 1990, 26)

Frixa thus construes map to be a universal term, utilizing both form and function in an essentialist definition. Generally, definitions of maps have been either formal, addressing the characteristics required for a map to be a map (scalar, relationship to the world, etc.), or functional, addressing what people do with maps (navigate, visualize the world, etc.). In my experience, such definitions are either/or, one or the other. At best, as with the definition of “map” offered in volume 1 of The History of Cartography, one element dominates (“facilitates a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events”) while the other is proffered only briefly (“graphic”) (Harley and Woodward 1987, xvi).

Frixa’s unique combination of form and function curiously propagates a strictly Anglophone idealization of maps. He gives no hint that almost every other European language derives its equivalent to map from a quite different Latin root: carta or sheet of paper. His etymology of “map” is only valid if: first, we somehow ignore the complexity of the different terms used in medieval and early modern Europe before carte, Karte, map, etc. eventually stabilized semantically in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Krogt 2015, 124–27); and, second, we privilege the English map as the only authentic term across a couple of millennia.

The ahistorical etymology further ignores the complexity of the development of the word map in medieval and eventual specifically English usage. Frixa is correct that English map derives from the Latin mappa, meaning a tablecloth, napkin, but also a signal flag. The general supposition is that as larger cloths were used as one support for paintings and drawings, mappa began to be used as early as the twelfth century for graphic works, perhaps with the sense of display, made on any support (vellum, papyrus, paper, wood, walls, etc.). The slippage in usage could well have been earlier: the OED (art. “map” n1) states that the “post-classical Latin mappa is attested from the late” fourth century “as a term used by land surveyors, though its exact interpretation is not clear.” The shifting pattern of usage, from material to the kinds of images prepared on that material, was not limited to mappa. A variety of other words were adopted for maps and images produced on other support materials, as carta (paper) or tabula (wood panel), with usage further slipping so that the terms were applied to any such image, regardless of support. In fact, the medieval mappa extended to cover non-graphic works, as when mappamundi was used for prose or poetic descriptions of the world {Woodward, 1987, #678@287}.

It also seems as though medieval French acquired mappe only after the Norman invasion, so the word was not part of the Anglo-Norman lexicon (OED art. “map” n1). Mappa presumably came into English through scholarly Latin. By the early sixteenth century, the words map, card or chart, and plan or plot were variously used in English for works that we generically call “maps” today; by the eighteenth century these had stabilized into map for images describing the world or large regions, chart for an image of the seas and lakes, and plan for an image prepared from direct observation and measurement. Only in the nineteenth century did map acquire its idealized, universalist conception as any and all images that depict the world or part thereof (Edney 2019).

So, yes, mappa was used by some Latin authors to refer to a linen cloth in which leftovers could be taken away, but that was only one particular usage and it was moreover one whose connotations did not carry over into medieval usage, let alone into its early modern usage. Frixa’s etymology is misguided.

Frixa’s etymology thus appears as an instance of confirmation bias, of selecting data that supports a predefined conclusion such that contradictory evidence is ignored or played down. That predefined conclusion is that there is a universal category of things that are unambiguously identifiable as “maps,” and always have been. Each map is self-contained and stable, a position stemming from the material preconception. At the same time, the etymology allows Frixa to intertwine these long-established elements of the ideal of cartography with newer elements drawn from the post-1980 sociocultural critique of maps. In particular, the supposed connotation that maps are about taking resonates with sociocultural arguments that maps are inherently bound up within a variety of unequal power relations. There is, furthermore, a paradox in Frixa’s reference to Bruno Latour’s concept of the immutable mobile: while that concept is itself dependent on the ideal’s material preconception, it is integral to Latour’s argument that the difference between modern European science and pre-modern or other scientific traditions is not that Europeans in the early modern era somehow all acquired a new rationality that henceforth distinguished them from non-Europeans, but that Europeans developed new practices that took their investigation of the world in new and productive directions. In this respect, the immutable mobile is a modern phenomenon, which Frixa now suggests was characteristic of cartographic science over millennia.

Overall, Frixa ran afoul of a partial and ahistorical etymology to create an essentialist definition that construes the map to be an unchanging and universal thing, in line with the ideal of cartography. The sociocultural critique is denied and undermined. The history of maps is forced once again forced into an intellectual straightjacket. The ideal persists.

p.s. my reliance on the OED is provisional; the size and complexity of the endeavor, and the difficulty of keeping every single entry updated (“Card n2,” which includes that word’s mappy meanings, has not been updated since the first edition, in 1888), so that the historical information is understandably often old-hat and not to be blindly trusted.

p.p.s. the cover image for this post is of napkin and mappamundi; alas, the lunch was excellent and there were no leftovers.


Edney, Matthew H. 2019. Cartography: The Ideal and Its History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frixa, Emanuele. 2018. “The Representation of the Places of Origin: A Geographical Perspective.” In Visual and Linguistic Representations of Places of Origin: An Interdisciplinary Analysis, edited by Maria Pia Pozzato, 49–77. Cham, Switz.: Springer.

Harley, J. B., and David Woodward. 1987. “Preface.” In Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, edited by J. B. Harley, and David Woodward, xv–xxi. Vol. 1 of The History of Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Krogt, Peter van der. 2015. “The Origin of the Word ‘Cartography’.” e-Perimetron (www.e-perimetron.org) 10, no. 3: 124–42.

Latour, Bruno. 1990. “Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together.” In Knowledge and Soiety Studies: in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, edited by H. Kuklick, 1–40. Greenwich: Jai Press.

Woodward, David. 1987. “Medieval Mappaemundi.” In Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, edited by J. B. Harley, and David Woodward, 286–370. Vol. 1 of The History of Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.