The earliest reference to “censor” appears as “one of two magistrates of ancient Rome” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]), who in addition to taking the census (that is, the registration of citizens, originally for tax purposes), supervised public morals and censured the population (Columbia Encyclopedia 2008). The English words “censor” and “census” are from the Latin censere, which means to appraise, value, judge, consider or assess; “censure” is from the Latin censura, meaning judgment. During the era in which these terms originated, Cato the Elder (234–149 b.c.e.) undertook a vigorous campaign to stem the infiltration of Greek culture (Knowles 2006).

According to the OED, the first modern use of “censor” applied to people whose job it was to ensure that “books, journals, plays, etc.” were free from anything “immoral, heretical or offensive to the State,” and arose in relation to the theater. That is …

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