Column: No vaccinations yet but plenty of cancellations

When something extraordinary happens, we hear certain words repeated over and over again by the news media. Currently, in addition to quarantine, there are the words vaccination and cancellation.

Across the globe, people are trying to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus disease known as COVID-19. Anthony Fauci, director of America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that it would take well over a year to develop a successful preparation because the process involves testing, licensing and finally manufacturing. Other contagious diseases already have vaccines ready for use – remember the recent measles outbreak in 2019, and before that, in 2014? Nonetheless, many people opposed having their children vaccinated against measles.

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The history of vaccines goes back to the 18th century. At that time, smallpox was one of the most infectious diseases affecting Europeans, killing an estimated 400,000 people a year. In 1798, the English physician Edward Jenner discovered that a person inoculated with the cowpox virus was able to develop immunity to smallpox. The words we’re hearing so often now – vaccine and vaccination – have their source in the Latin “vaccinus,” an adjective which means relating to a cow (“vacca” is Latin for cow). Louis Pasteur, in the 19th century, carried on the work that Jenner had begun in the fields of vaccination and immunology.

A major interruption in our daily lives during this scary period of the COVID-19 pandemic is caused by widespread cancellation of events involving large numbers of people, such as conferences, entertainment, sports and travel.

Cancellation’s etymology is complex but logical. It begins with the Latin “cancellus,” signifying a grating, lattice or trellis-work, a meaning that survives in the English word chancel – the altar end of a church reserved for the clergy and choir which is physically separated from the nave by grillwork. In ancient Rome, the “cancellus” referred to the grating between the judge’s space in a court and the area occupied by the public. Leading the litigants in front of the judge was an official called a “cancelliere.” Eventually, “cancelliere” became the title awarded to the judge’s secretary. In medieval times, the “cancelliere” was a high-ranking functionary at court, responsible for the official correspondence of a ruler (in modern Italian, “cancelleria” refers to stationery and office supplies, as well as the shops that sold those wares). Also our words chancellor and chancellery derive from the Latin “cancelliere.

The etymological leap that the Latin word “cancellus” made to arrive at our word cancel (and cancellation) was possible thanks to the form of a grating or trellis-work. In other words, the crossed bars of a grating became the crossed lines with which we strike out, or cancel, something written.

With spring break only days away, the cancellation of trips will be even more difficult to deal with. Trips are usually planned a long time ahead and often without a contingency for calamitous events. Hopefully, today’s frustration and disappointment can be turned into positive energy and lead to experiences and discoveries as satisfying as they were unanticipated.


 Sabine Eiche is a writer and art historian.

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