Printable Version
Pronunciation: kahr-tel Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A consortium of companies formed to prevent competition and control prices, a producers syndicate. 2. A written agreement between two countries at war defining a prisoner exchange. 3. A coalition or bloc of political organizations formed for common action.

Notes: In American English, cartel usually refers to a consortium of violent criminal organizations in countries beyond the southern US borders that are involved in the production and distribution of controlled substances. But the word has meanings beyond that. Cartel is a lexical orphan.

In Play: The original meaning referred to a syndicate of companies up to no good: "The international oil cartel is usually blamed for congressional reluctance to respond to global warming." But good political motivations go into the making of cartels, too: "Social democrats formed a cartel with Christian socialists and liberals to make their common pro-union policies law."

Word History: Today's Good Word was picked up from German Kartell "consortium of companies", borrowed from French cartel, inherited from Medieval Latin cartellus "charter". This word developed from classical Latin chartula "memorandum", diminutive of charta, carta "paper (made from papyrus)", borrowed from Greek khartes "papyrus roll". Since the Egyptians invented paper made from papyrus, and Egyptian is an Afroasiatic language, PIE would not have had a word for papyrus. So, Greek must have borrowed khartes and we know not wherefrom. We can, however, see how carta and charta split in Latin to give us the Latinate borrowings card and chart. Latin had no letter for Greek X [kh], so it invented a digraph CH, for that sound. People who didn't know what CH stood for, started pronouncing it C [k], like the English pronunciation of the same digraph in its Greek borrowings, such as chronology and chrome. Then, with two pronunciations of the same word, why not give them different meanings, and—voilà!—two words. (Now, let's let wordmaster Lew Jury know how much we appreciate his sharing today's absolutely fascinating Good Word with us.)

Dr. Goodword,

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