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People have asked, 'What's a chancellor?'

The title of chancellor today connotes a position of prestige and high responsibility. But the word has humble origins.

Back in old Roman times, spectators at government events such as trials or hearings were separated from officials by a lattice screens or bars called cancelli. The keeper of this gate, who acted like a porter or bailiff, was the cancellarius. As time went by, the job got more status as clerical work and some legal responsibilities were added.

Meanwhile, as masses in the early Christian church got larger and more ceremonial, church architecture followed Roman tradition and installed cancelli - sometimes quite ornate - to signify the separation of priests and choir from the laity. The decorative symbolic barrier eventually became known as the chancel in English, by way of French.

As clerks became administrators, both in court and elsewhere in government, they gained stature but kept the old title of cancellarius, or chancellor. Eventually, Edward the Confessor of England, second-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, adopted the word for his top-ranking secretary in the 11th Century.

After the Norman Conquest, the chancellor's job eventually came to mean the highest financial officer of the crown. It was adopted by universities in the 14th Century to name their leaders, and later in Germany it refers to what other countries would call a prime minister.




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