In a word

The verb "to cancel" is being given new life. But who is cancelling whom?


The verb “to cancel” has had a long life. English speakers have been cancelling (or cancelling out) words on a page since at least 1440; Shakespeare wrote of cancelling hopes; by 1619, vows were being cancelled; Milton cancelled people from heaven (that is: they were evicted); Byron thought that his anxieties could be cancelled by a kind letter, and by 1925, “effects” or forces could cancel each other out.

As with many words of Latin origin, a metaphorical meaning is lost when they are brought into English. “Cancelli” in Latin were lattice-work. This was used to describe the crossing-out of letters on a manuscript. So now, when we cancel an engagement, we are metaphorically crossing it out.

The word “cancel” has had a huge revival in recent times with the term “cancel culture”. As with the use of the phrase “political correctness”, “PC”, “PC gone mad”, the phrase itself becomes part of the “culture wars”. Some claim that the American use of “cancel” in this context is a lift from African American vernacular, as with the band Chic’s song, “Your Love is Cancelled”.

But let’s not beat about the bush. Right now it’s being used by politicians who believe that the culture they want to preserve is being cancelled by liberals (in the US sense), museum decolonisers, campus radicals and the like. This raises the question of who is cancelling whom. When politicians in power complain of culture being cancelled, they suggest that a whole way of life is being threatened.

The UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph in May, headlined “We Won’t Allow Britain’s History to be Cancelled”, expressing concern about the “pressure” being put on heritage organisations. Although the article itself is reasonably nuanced, the hostile use of the word “cancel” in the headline suggests that this government won’t allow imperial history to be negated or critiqued too fiercely, and indeed that it, through Dowden, has the power to, well, cancel (!) those it disagrees with.

This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.

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