A prolific word


Chancellor; cancellation; chancel.

A student remarked on these words. She had been exploring the delights of calligraphy, inspired by her uncle’s handwriting, he being of that post-war generation who were taught at school to write in chancery script. He had given her a book about it.

From it she learnt that in Italy, where the script originated, it was, and still is, called scrittura cancelleresca. What did that mean, she wondered: what is the connection between that word and chancellors, and the chancel in a church? And, apparently, the verb to cancel? And where does chancery fit in? Are they all from the same origin?

Yes. All come from one Latin word, with their various meanings acquired since by a combination of metaphor and historical accident.

That Latin word is CANCELLI, m.pl., meaning lattice, enclosure, grating, grate, balustrade, bars, or railings. It is not normally found in the singular. Cicero uses it to mean the bar in a court of justice (Verres II.3.59, §135). It comes to mean any kind of barrier for a space that is fenced off, and later, by metonymy, the space itself.

  1. CHANCEL: This word, as the OED explains, ‘was used to denote a separate division of the ancient basilica, latticed off to separate the judges and council from the audience part of the place’. And so it was natural that it would come to mean ‘The eastern part of a church, appropriated to the use of those who officiate in the performance of the services… and separated from the other parts by a screen, railing, etc.’
  2. CANCEL: In Latin, as in English, a noun can be verbed, and so we find much later in the lawcourts the verb cancellare, meaning to cross out a piece of writing, lattice-wise, i.e. with criss-cross lines: and so we find the English verb cancel, first recorded in 1440, meaning exactly the same thing. From that by metaphora comes the whole string of modern meanings, such as annul, suppress, revoke, discontinue, abolish, call off, counterbalance, compensate for, etc.
  3. CHANCELLOR: To read the OED’s entry for this word is have a brief history lesson, which includes mention of other European countries also. The word originally describes someone who was inside the administrative space (see above), and so initially meant a secretary in a court of law. But Edward the Confessor, who was the first English monarch to have a seal, was also the first to appoint the King’s Chancellor, who was keeper of that seal—who was in fact the monarch’s secretary, and under the Norman Kings his responsibilities became more and more important, until eventually he was the highest functionary in the land—and still is now, because the Lord Chancellor, appointed by the monarch, is the highest functionary in the land, ranking above the Prime Minister. He is Keeper of the Great Seal and is responsible for the operation all things judicial.

The word chancery, which describes specific administrative functions in this country, is simply a shortening of chancellery, or the French chancellerie.

As for the scrittura cancelleresca—that was developed in the Vatican towards the end of the fifteenth century for the use of the Papal secretariat, and the first book expounding it was published by Ludovico degli Arrighi, a man  still revered by calligraphers. Queen Elizabeth I was taught to write it as a girl, and her handwriting too is still admired. (For her education, see earlier post: http://teacherofclassics.com/?p=1631)