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charter (c. 1200, from Old French chartre, “charter, letter, document, covenant”)

George Osborne’s “Charter for Budget Responsibility” is known as the “Fiscal Charter”. Why a “charter” and not a plan, strategy, protocol or order?

“Charter” appeared first in English in documents in the 13th century. It meant a legal document on a single sheet which confirmed that a transaction or agreement had taken place. So, when King John signed a guarantee of certain liberties it was called “Magna Carta”, or “Great Charter”.

As with a good number of words of Latin origin, it arrived into English via Norman French, by which time the original Latin meaning had become obscured. “Carta” originally meant paper (thus our word “card”); a “cartula” was a small paper. This diminutive became the Norman French “chartre”, in England evolving into “charter”.

The formal sense of a charter as a recognition of a legal transaction has co-existed with other meanings: to have one’s charter meant receiving a pardon. From the 16th century, it has also signified a publicly recognised right. So far, so formal. But then, on 8 May 1838, a document was published called “The People’s Charter”, demanding universal suffrage, vote by ballot, annual parliaments, the division of the country into equal electoral districts, the abolition of the property qualification for MPs and the introduction of MPs’ pay. Its supporters were the Chartists. For many, this sense of the word is powerful. It was part of the inspiration for Charter 88, the UK organisation that advocated constitutional and electoral reform.

The use of the word for legislation on government spending – or the lack of it – vacuums up much of what has come before. On the one hand it announces itself as a formal, binding document. On the other, it parades as a bit of populism, as if it’s on our side. As and when a battle takes place over the Fiscal Charter’s consequences, the two main meanings of the word – one belonging with the established order, and the other with a demand from below – will be embodied in the two sides of the battle.