Can I have a couple of minutes of your empty time? This is about the word can. And this is about me, as I work on finding a big enough distraction that I won’t think about the forecast for a second government shutdown this coming Friday.
Join me if you need distraction too. See, the word can, harmless little three-letter job, is head of the Overworked Word list that I just made up, but I know has little importance in grammatical circles. In those circles, the word ‘may’ is taught to be used preferably because can denotes ability; may infers permission. Ooops. So when I just said, “Can I have…”, I’m saying I have the ability to – when really I should be saying “May” for your permission. Well heck, who ever asks permission anymore. They just take. Permission is old fashioned, hard to find, and doesn’t set well when refused.
That said, come follow me down this rabbit trail. The word can is most commonly thought of as a round metal container filled with food, that we find on grocery store shelves. Way back in time, a can was made of tin, which during WWII kids would go door to door collecting for the metal that could be reduced and renewed into items necessary to the War Effort. More recently, those little food holders have undergone some design changes, like shrinkage, while the price remained the same; and with canned fish, they have gone flatter with more fluid, plus a price hike.
Moving right along, think of this political metaphor: Kicking the can down the road…not really, just a phrase used by politicians who need to fill time and space with more ambiguous noises. Kick the can does have another history, though, as a childhood game played on the neighborhood street; it involved running and kicking thus was considered gender-free, in contrast to Hide and Seek which was considered rather girly.
And then there’s the matter of “getting canned”. Who doesn’t know what’s involved with that phrase! Sometimes canned may be spoken with a shrug, as a casual synonym for getting fired. But quite often those two words can chill, and be whispered behind a cupped hand. Either way, the phrase may be life changing to some degree.
On the side of universal happy, let’s look (yeah, everybody!) at the risqué Cancan dance that originated either in France or Algeria, was executed brilliantly by 5’9” tall, high kicking Australian women to 2/4 time, or galup music, mainly in the 1840s. Risqué meant that high kicks and kited skirts exposed full coverage pantalets, this combination of female dress and activity considered quite naughty at that time.
All this leaves us with two untouched considerations: first, my daughter’s home canned peaches, potatoes, and green beans. And second, empathy for all those dedicated teachers of ESL who struggle with double meanings, let alone the layered word can.