The word cartoon was originally derived from the French word carton, which was a strong, heavy paper (comparable to paste board) that was used by the artists of the time. In fact, the word cartoon was originally used in conjunction with the fine arts, to refer to large-scale design layouts, which would then later be transferred to a fresco, tapestry, or other such work of art.

Today the word cartoon has evolved to include several different meanings.

The first usage refers to printed images that are meant to be humorous or satirical, and are oftentimes used to make a point. The word cartoon was first applied to print media in 1843, when Punch Magazine used the term to title a humorous illustration done by John Leech – itself satirizing the cartoons used to create frescos. The name stuck, and from that point forward, the satirical and humorous images (and later strips) in newspapers and magazines continued to be called cartoons.

The word cartoon has also become nearly interchangeable with animation (originally hand drawn, and later computer created), of the sort seen in animated films or TV shows. The first animated film made using hand drawn techniques was a French short from 1908, entitled Fantasmagorie. By 1910, with the increasing popularity of (and the business provided by) movie theatres, the production of animated short films had become a thriving industry.

Two of the American studios that have become nearly synonymous with producing cartoons were launched during this time. In 1923, the Walt Disney Company produced their first animated film, Alice's Wonderland, which later became a series of short films. In 1928, Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse, and an empire was born. In 1931, Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, both of them former Disney animators, partnered with Warner Brothers to launch a series called Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny's first appearance was in 1940, in the short film A Wild Hare.

At one point, probably in large part due to the influence of the Disney and Warner Brothers companies, cartoons were made primarily for children. This has not been as true in recent years, however, with the development of the Simpsons (first on the Tracey Ullman Show, then later in their own half hour series), South Park, the advent of the Cartoon Network and their Adult Swim block, as well as the broad audience that animated family films such as those produced by Pixar and Dreamworks enjoy.