The word cancel can make people cross – or at least crabby. It can seem to bespeak censorship and social incarceration. But it’s been in circulation for a long time and comes from an even longer and larger line of words, and while etymology does not reign over current usage, I think a few of cancel’s siblings and cousins can help us get to the crux of the matter.
Our English verb cancel comes from Anglo-Norman canceler, ‘cross out’, ultimately from Latin cancellus ‘railing or lattice’, because at first cancel referred to crossing something out by drawing not just one line or a scribble on it but a whole lattice of lines. But that Latin cancellus has other progeny. It (or in some cases its plural, cancelli) referred to a barred door, as well as to a barred railing dividing two spaces. The ‘barred railing’ sense gave us a word for a part of a church on the far side of a dividing screen or railing, the part the priest and other ecclesiastical authorities would occupy: the chancel. The ‘barred door’ sense gave us a word for someone who at first was a gatekeeper, someone who was at the screen between the public and a judge, censor, or other official, for instance; over time it gained in stature to refer to a high appointed official or executive: a chancellor.
And where did cancellus come from? It’s the diminutive form of cancer, which, aside from naming a nasty disease, is also the Latin for ‘crab’ (as astrologists will know), and it also meant ‘lattice, grid, barrier’. The disease was named after the crab (due to the appearance of certain tumours). But how do you get from a crab to a barrier? You don’t; you go the other way. The crab got this name because of the circular enclosure its pincers make. Cancer comes from Proto-Italic *karkros, ‘enclosure’, and is a doublet (meaning they were originally the same word, like person and parson or vermin and varmint) of carcer.
Carcer? If you’re thinking right away of incarcerate, you got it in one: our carceral words for prison and similar enclosures are long-lost twins of our words for crabs, tumours, barriers, high officials, and obliteration or discontinuation.
But wait, there’s more. Cancer and carcer both come from a Proto-Indo-European root *kr-kr- having to do with circles and enclosures that is the source of words such as circus, circle, circulation, crux, cross, curve, and crisp. And because *kr-kr- is in turn from *(s)ker- meaning ‘bend’, all of these words are also cousins of other words descended from that root, such as corona, crown, shrine, and even ring.
That took a few turns, didn’t it? But I’d like to draw on the connection between cancel and chancellor just to underline (rather than cross out) an important fact about cancelling: like censorship, it can only be executed by someone who has the authority or power. If you are the official gatekeeper, you can cancel: if you are the postmaster, you can cancel a stamp; if you are the TV network boss, you can cancel a show; if you are the owner of a newspaper (or someone with similar power over it), you can cancel an edition or even the whole newspaper. But if you are an ordinary person, the most you can actually cancel is your own subscription. You don’t end the circulation of the newspaper everywhere; you just end your involvement in its circulation. That said, if you and a lot of other people cancel your subscriptions, the people who do have discretionary power over the newspaper may cancel it – or they may remove the factor (e.g., an author) who is the reason you all have given for cancelling your subscriptions. But that’s not quite the same as you actually cancelling the newspaper or author; you just exerted pressure, which in this case (as not always) was responded to.
Cancelled, of course, is now sometimes used to refer to an attitude towards a person when something unlikeable is discovered about them. Fans may find that the star has views they don’t subscribe to, so the fans decide no longer to underwrite the star (subscribe is from Latin for ‘underwrite’; originally it meant exactly the same thing, and still typically has an aspect of fiscal support). But any one person or group of people can’t end all of a person’s circulation (fame, discussion, purchase of works, existence as a human being on the face of the planet); they can only end their own involvement in it. And that involvement is not unlimited in scope.
So, to get to the crux of the matter, if many of the fans of a person decide they no longer want to support and give their money to that person, they may say the person is “cancelled,” but this is like cancelling a newspaper subscription, not like cancelling a TV show or a stamp. The person still walks, talks, and writes, and probably still has a relatively large audience – they may even be getting paid handsomely to give their opinion to an audience of millions on how bad being “cancelled” is. But even famous people don’t have a right to require people to listen to them or pay them. If they have offended enough of their audience – or enough powerful people – that someone who does have the power to cancel their TV show or book or whatever chooses to do so, even then they are generally in no worse circumstance than millions of other people, and they probably have much more money and property than most.
In other words, since cancel is often used as an expression of dislike and withdrawal on the one side and upset about being disliked and withdrawn from on the other, much use of cancel these days is less about being barred (or barring) – let alone about incarceration – and more about circulation, subscription, and crabbiness. And that’s not really a new phenomenon. It’s just another manifestation of the old truism: What goes around comes around.