Mind your language

The Chancellor’s strange connection to cancel culture

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

The cancel culture wants to obliterate people who do, or more often say, the wrong thing (for example, that there are such things as women) or even pronounce a taboo word. Taboo words have long been with us. The taboo word fuck was not even included in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet today the dictionary prints far worse words.

Anyway, there is a curious connection between cancel culture and Rishi Sunak. In the 19th century, railway tickets were cancelled by clipping; indeed a scissor-like punch was known as a pair of ticket cancels. Postage stamps, the other glories of the Victorian era, were cancelled, often with Maltese crosses. But cancel originally meant to cross out writing using a lattice of pen lines. This is because in Latin cancelli meant ‘bars of lattice-work’.


In an ancient Roman basilica (a non-religious place of public assembly and a court of justice), these lattice bars marked off the part where the judges sat. The screened-off part later gave the name to the chancel in a church.

There was an official in ancient Rome stationed at this bar of lattice-work as an usher. His name was the cancellarius. This official grew in importance through the centuries. Edward the Confessor was the first English king to have a chancellor as his secretary. The Chancellor came to rank above all but the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was the general guardian of infants, lunatics and idiots, which sounds much like a modern political leader.

That of course was the Lord Chancellor. The Chancellor of the Exchequer brings in another cross-current of word history. The Exchequer originally referred to the table covered with a cloth divided into squares, on which accounts of revenue were kept by means of counters. The checked cloth derived from the exclamation check in the game of chess. Chess itself comes from the Persian shah, via medieval Latin scaccus. Scaccus meant ‘check’ in the game, and the plural, scacci, was the Latin name for the whole game.

So Rishi Sunak as Chancellorbears a title derived, like cancel culture, from latticed bars.

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