The cliché: In early May, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner extended the debt ceiling deadline to August 2. Bloomberg Businessweek quoted Matthew Zames, chairman of the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee, who wrote Geithner saying, "Any delay in making an interest or principal payment by Treasury even for a very short period of time would put the U.S. Treasury and overall financial markets in uncharted territory, and could trigger another catastrophic financial crisis." The U.S. did not delay making any payments, and yet Zames' prediction of "uncharted territory" seems, if one reads the news at least, to have come about. In this month's London Review of Books, John Lanchester wrote, "I’m told that the cliché du jour in financial markets involves reference to 'uncharted territory'." Indeed, in July, as Europe's own debt crisis grew worse, Erik Berglof, chief economist at the London-based EBRD, was quoted in Bloomberg saying "We are in uncharted territory. The source of the contagion seems to be in worse shape." Then in the aftermath of the U.S. debt ceiling crisis and subsequent credit downgrade, Barclay's Capital predicted gold would exceed $2,000 an ounce next year. "We believe three key pillars are set to strengthen and drive prices further into uncharted territory, breaching the $2,000 per ounce milestone," they wrote in a report.
Where it's from: The phrase's literal origin is with nautical explorers who used charts and maps to record their discoveries. If one found territory that was "uncharted," i.e. not on the map, he had gone somewhere no one else had ever recorded. And though Lanchester notes that its use is reaching cliché proportions, it is a phrase that has always existed in financial parlance. In 1985, for instance, a UPI report stated "For the fifth consecutive week, the stock market surged past previous records to close up in uncharted territory." (Happier times, those 1980s.)