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shameless pleading

Can, Canister

My god, it’s full of worms!

Dear Word Detective: I need to know why cans, such as tin cans, came to be called “cans.” My friends think it was out of necessity; they used to be called “canisters” and it was just shortened because people were too lazy. I don’t think this is the case, however, because the word “canister” has been around since around 1500, originating from even older words as far back as the Greek word “kanna” at least. So that tin cans would be the object dubbed with the name “can” for the reason of laziness hundreds of years after the origin of “canister” doesn’t seem right to me, plus nobody in modern day lets slip the phrase “those canisters of food”; instead they might be referred to as “containers” and we don’t call cans “conts.” The objects that are generally referred to as “canisters,” from what I’ve experienced, are things bearing a resemblance to a thermos or an insulated containment vessel, like those used to hold liquid nitrogen or uranium. — Jacob.

Canisters of uranium, eh? Next you’ll be asking about the origin of “centrifuge,” and we’ll both be revising our plans for the next 30 years. Interestingly, speaking of humorless men with badges, I hear the word “canister” and automatically think “tear gas,” a flashback to my somewhat erratic college career.

Before we delve into the connection, if any, between “can” and “cannister,” I should explain that there is absolutely no connection between the noun “can” (as in “can of soup”) and the English verb “can” meaning “to be able to” (as in “I believe I can fly”). That verb comes from the same Germanic root that gave us “to know,” and in English evolved into meaning “to know how to do something,” i.e., to be able to do it. The old “to know” sense of “can” also gave us “canny” and “cunning,” both meaning “having or exhibiting knowledge.”

“Can” (which dates back to Old English) and “canister” (which didn’t show up until at least the 16th century) are two separate words; “can” is not, and never has been, a short form of “canister.” The two words do, however, share a common origin. “Can” is connected to the Late Latin “canna,” meaning a cup or vessel, and in English it was first used to mean either a drinking cup or a vessel to store liquid. “Cannister” comes from the Latin “canistrum,” meaning “basket,” and in English a “canister” was originally a small box or basket. Both Latin words, however, developed from the Greek “kanna” meaning “reed” (also the source of our “cane”). In the case of “canister,” the connection is obvious since baskets were often made of reeds. The connection of “can” to “reed” is a bit more opaque, but may have to do with the hollowness of large reeds.

In practical use, of course, there’s a great overlap between “can” and “canister,” at least in part because in English the “closed container” sense that developed for “can” also influenced the development of “canister.” About all you can say as even a vague rule is that a “can” is likely to be made of metal, while a “canister” can easily be made of cardboard, plastic, etc., as well as of metal.

1 comment to Can, Canister

  • Silk

    I’m surprised no one mentioned that we’d been canning food for the winter long before there were suitable metal cans. We can foods in glass jars at home. Canned peaches, you know? So it seems reasonable that even if the commercial preserved peaches are in metal, they’re still canned peaches, therefore tin “can”.

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