From Prison to Purge: The Linguistic Origins of 'Cancel Culture'

Rob Kyff on

The term "cancel culture" has been batted around like a volleyball during the past few weeks. It refers, of course, to the practice of discrediting, boycotting or shunning someone, whether it's a classmate or a public figure, for a perceived offense.

The fierce power of the phrase is deeply rooted in the origins of "cancel," a verb that began with the Latin "carcer" (prison), the same root that gives us "incarcerate." Because jail cells sometimes have crossed bars, a Latin derivative of "carcer" evolved to "cancellus," meaning "grating, lattice." Soon, the verb "cancellare" emerged, meaning "to make something like a lattice."

Picking up on this "crisscross" meaning, Old French adopted "cancellare" as "canceler," which meant "to deface something written by marking it with crossed lines." During the 1300s, English absorbed "canceler" as "cancel" and expanded its meaning to a general sense of "remove."

Thus, etymologically speaking, to "cancel" a person is to cross them out, deface them and, if you want to go back even further, to imprison them. Gulp.

The use of "cancel" to mean "eradicate a person" has appeared only during the past 30 years. Some linguists trace this use to a particularly nasty scene in the 1991 film "New Jack City," in which Nino, a drug boss played by Wesley Snipes, vows to "cancel" his defiant girlfriend. The trope picked up steam in 2010 when the hip-hop artist Lil Wayne quoted Nino's declaration in his song "I'm Single."

The expansion of "cancel" to mean "eradicate someone" has also been attributed to users of Twitter, where "cancel" often appeared in hashtags during the early 2010s.

One of the first uses of the phrase "cancel culture" came from Myles McNutt, an assistant professor at Old Dominion University. In a 2014 tweet describing network television's programing decisions, he referred to a "renew/cancel culture."


"Cancel culture," sans "renew," grew in popularity during the mid-2010s, receiving a big boost in November 2017 when writer Shanita Hubbard denounced criticism of Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas by tweeting, "Let's talk 'cancel culture.'"

According to the Google Trends website, the use of "cancel culture" expanded slowly from 2018 to early 2020 until this past spring, when it suddenly spiked to a peak in June, dropped in July and then accelerated again in late August when speakers at the Republican National Convention repeatedly cudgeled "cancel culture."

Don't expect the phrase "cancel culture" to be canceled anytime soon.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.



Crankshaft Nest Heads Ed Gamble Rose is Rose Rick McKee The Pajama Diaries