or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, September 20, 2010

Strike Out

The other day at work, after having written the word "cancelled", I as usual stopped to wonder what its etymology might be. It didn't seem as if it ought to be French, because the French verb "annuler", obviously the originator of English "to annul", serves as the translation for "to cancel". And yet "cancellation" had to be French, because "-tion" is a very French suffix for turning a verb into a noun, and most of the English words bearing it are directly from French, or from its progenitor, Latin, which made do with the suffix "-tio" for the same purpose.*

So we have a few possibilities. "Cancellation" is in fact a French word, presumably derived from the verb "canceller". Or we got "cancellation" from Latin as "cancellatio" and Anglicized it by Frenchifying it. Or we got "cancel" from somewhere else and just back-formed it the French way into "cancellation". Or something else I hadn't thought of.

And what about "chancel" and "chancellor"? They seem so obviously related, since soft "-c-", its Greek equivalent, hard "-k-", and sibilant "-ch-" are often found in related words: "car" and "chariot", "chamber" and "camera", "leak" and "leach", "loch" and "lake", "bank" and "bench", "hunker" and "haunch". It is hard, though, to see what a chancel--the space around the altar in a church--and a chancellor--a high-ranking government official--have to do with one another , let alone the idea of cancellation.

Nevertheless, there are answers to be had, and they are as follows. "Canceller" is in fact a French verb; they merely have two words for the same thing, a situation not unknown in English, and what's more use them for slightly different purposes, also not a rarity in English. They naturally enough got it from Latin, and you will never guess what its origin was. The word "cancer" meant in Latin "a lattice" (it also meant what it means in English**--why might a word spelled one way not have two completely unrelated meanings?). And this "cancer" was a variant of "carcer", "prison", and where have you seen that before? "Incarcerate", of course! The "latticework" sense of "carcer"/"cancer"/"cancel" obviously derives from the shape of the bars holding the prisoners inside.

"Cancel" came to mean "to delete: to annul" because of the lattice-like shape of the lines and hash-marks used to cross something out. A chancel, you may have surmised by now, is so called because it is usually surrounded by bars or gridwork to delineate it. And a chancellor was originally a sort of court secretary who worked behind a latticed wall.

* And of course "-tio" is the ending of the relatively common English word "fellatio", which properly ought to be "fellation", but instead it was shrouded under a discreet veil of Latin***.

** Which is to say that originally it meant "crab", as in the sign of the zodiac, and later came to mean "cancer", not because the tumour moves about in the body but because a tumour beneath the skin pushed and swelled the surface veins in a way that was thought to look like a crab. English "crab" comes ultimately from the same source as German "Krebs", which as in its Latin incarnation means both "cancer" and "crab".****

*** Which always brings to mind a scene from the 1988 movie "Dangerous Liaisons", in which the Vicomte de Valmont is cheerfully corrupting the innocent Cecile de Volanges; having taken her virginity, he offers to teach her a few words of Latin--including "fellatio" and "cunnilingus", obviously--and then there is a jump cut to a priest performing the Latin mass. A cheap joke, I suppose, but it still makes me smile.

**** And into our little puddle of "-c-" and "-k-" and "-ch-" words we may now drop "cancer" and "canker".


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