Words We're Watching

What It Means to Get 'Canceled'

Show’s over, folks. Time to go home.

What to Know

Canceling is getting a new use case directed towards people themselves. Canceling and cancel culture refer to removing support of public figures on the basis of their objectionable opinions or actions. This can include boycotts or refusal to promote their work.

Things get canceled (or cancelled) all the time, for different reasons. That meeting you weren’t looking forward to attending anyway got canceled because people couldn’t coordinate their schedules. A postage stamp gets canceled with a marking from the post office to show that it has been used and shouldn’t be used again. You cancel an order after you change your mind and don’t want the item anymore. A TV show gets canceled when it doesn’t bring in good ratings. When something is canceled, it goes away.

cancel-button-on-computer-photo

And... goodbye.

What Does 'Canceling' Mean Today?

But now, you can cancel people—in particular, celebrities, politicians, or anyone who takes up space in the public consciousness.

If you don’t know, there’s discourse about how Cardi B and Nicki Minaj should be cancelled for previous homophobic and transphobic comments. (Whether or not they are actually “cancelled” is a different matter entirely.)
Victoria Hou, The Columbia Daily Spectator, 6 Feb. 2019

Even now, he doesn’t seem to have the decency to resign. He’s going to make the very people he offended do “the hard work” of canceling him. He’s going to make people of color running for president stop what they’re doing to own him.
Elie Mystal, The Nation, 2 Feb. 2019

West may not possess much self-control, but he is more self-aware than his detractors give him credit for. He’s certainly aware that public opinion has soured on him this year, and that more people advocate for “canceling” him every day.
Bryan Rolli, Forbes.com, 14 Dec. 2018

That’s all it takes, folks. Listen to disenfranchised voices when they have a concern, learn, acknowledge, move on. We don’t have to cancel anyone. They don’t need to step down. There is no long and winding process of penance.
Zach Johnston, Uproxx, 18 Jan. 2019

To cancel someone now means to stop giving support to that person, usually a celebrity or other well-known figure. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or simply no longer promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable, so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste.

The Origin of 'Cancel Culture'

The idea of canceling—and as some have labeled it, cancel culture—has taken hold in recent years due to conversations prompted by #MeToo and other movements that demand greater accountability from public figures. The term has been credited to black users of Twitter, where it has been used as a hashtag. As troubling information comes to light regarding celebrities who were once popular, such as Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr, and Louis C.K.—so come calls to cancel such figures. The cancellation is akin to a cancelled contract, a severing of the relationship that once linked a performer to their fans. As Jonah Engel Bromwich writes in the New York Times, the word echoes the trend of on-demand subscriptions of content, from which a user can opt out just as easily as they opt in.

There is a performative aspect to canceling, one that (it could be argued) paradoxically amplifies that which it seeks to squelch, if only for the moment. To cancel someone publicly often requires broadcasting that act, which then makes the target of one’s canceling a subject of attention. The objective behind canceling is often to deny that attention, so that the person loses cultural cachet. Bromwich quotes Lisa Nakamura, a professor in the Department of American Cultures at the University of Michigan, who says, “People talk about the attention economy — when you deprive someone of your attention, you’re depriving them of a livelihood.”

Words We're Watching talks about words we are increasingly seeing in use but that have not yet met our criteria for entry.



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