How Canceled Reached Peak Semantic Power

The metaphorical crossing-out dates back to antiquity.

A red "X" covers the word "cancel."
The Atlantic

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English rejuvenates itself by investing words that have been around forever with new shades of meaning on an as-needed basis. The history of a word’s journey through the language—its etymology—can read like a character’s narrative on a TV show. Maybe they were introduced as a minor character in Season 1, but in Season 3 they had a pivotal moment that elevated them into a featured player and that led, at the end of the series, to them winning the throne game (I have never seen Game of Thrones). Such is the case with cancel, which began in antiquity as the name for a small architectural feature but now reigns in internet discourse as one of the most powerful words around.

Through a linguistic process called “dissimilation,” in which one root word fractures into multiple words with similar-sounding syllables, cancel shares its origins with two other familiar Latin words: cancer (which meant “crab,” “tumor,” or “lattice”) and carcer (which meant “jail,” as in incarcerate). The ancient Greek and Roman cancelli or cancelarii were latticework screens used primarily in the court of law to partition the judge’s tribunal. The attendant guarding this border separating legal officials from everyday citizens became known as the cancellarius, a word that eventually evolved into chancellor, as in the position. As the legal societies of antiquity gave way to the religion-based European Middle Ages, the word was used to describe a similar type of screen, this one around the church’s altar—eventually giving us the name for that space, the chancel. More importantly, though, the latticework shape of the barrier also gave way to a new meaning: to cross out something, usually a piece of writing, with thatched lines.

It’s this meaning of cancel that traveled across the Atlantic to America, eventually evolving into the cancel we know and love today. The crossing-out of writing became something more metaphorical: to nullify an obligation, such as reservations or magazine subscriptions. This became more and more useful with the rise of American consumerism—the more opportunities to buy or subscribe, the more opportunities to return or cancel. The word began inching into its modern meaning toward the end of the century, as in songs such as Chic’s “Your Love Is Cancelled.” But during the online social-justice movements of the 2010s, cancel approached its peak semantic power as it circulated on social media. People who had done bad things but previously remained accepted by the culture at large began to be canceled, which—in addition to any potential real legal consequences—left the cancelee with a mark of shame and general disapproval. The word itself took on a power that left people paranoid, righteously indignant, or gleefully trigger-happy, depending on their vibe.

At a time when personal brands have become a valuable commodity, canceling someone is, semantically speaking, a natural extension of canceling events, subscriptions, orders, or appointments. But echoes from antiquity remain in the word today. Canceling someone is a bit like putting them behind a lattice screen, or crossing out their name. As in ancient courts or medieval churches, the cancellation creates a border that enforces a communal moral code—separating an area without obstructing our vision of it entirely. Cancellation isn’t total erasure. It’s more of a cultural time-out. Thus, after much internal debate, we arrived at the Tuesday clue: “Collectively ostracize, as a problematic public figure.”