General English

  • modal verb to ask politely
  • verb to put food in cans


  • noun a metal container for food or drink, made of steel with a lining of tin, or made entirely of aluminium
  • verb to preserve food by sealing it in special metal containers

Cars & Driving

  • noun a tube in a canned motor pump which insulates the motor winding




  • Any metal container used for keeping or preserving food, hermetically sealed if used for preservation

Human Resources

  • verb to dismiss somebody from employment


  • noun a metal container for liquid (such as a petrol can)
  • noun a metal container in which food or drink is hermetically sealed for storage over long periods


  • noun a toilet. Now a less-than-respectable term, but originally an accurate description of the buckets, tin containers, etc., used in, e.g., outdoor lavatories. The word was more common in the USA than Britain (except in armed-forces usage) until the 1970s.
  • noun a jail, prison. In this sense, dating from the late 19th century, the word is more common in Australia and the USA than it is in Britain.
  • noun the backside, buttocks. An inoffensive euphemism.
  • verb to stop, suppress or conceal something. This sense is normally expressed in the phrase ‘can it!’.


  • abbreviation forcancellation
  • abbreviation forcancelled

Origin & History of “can”

English has two distinct words can. The verb ‘be able to’ goes back via Old English cunnan and Germanic *kunnan to an Indo-European base *gn-, which also produced know. The underlying etymological meaning of can is thus ‘know’ or more specifically ‘come to know’, which survived in English until comparatively recently (in Ben Jonson’s The Magnetick Lady 1632, e.g., we find ‘She could the bible in the holy tongue’). this developed into ‘know how to do something’, from which we get the current ‘be able to do something’. The past tense could comes ultimately from prehistoric Germanic *kuntha, via Old English cūthe (related to English uncouth) and late middle English coude; the l is a 16th-century intrusion, based on the model of should and would. (Canny (16th c.) is probably a derivative of the verb can, mirroring a much earlier but parallel formation cunning.)

Can ‘container’ appears to come from a prehistoric Germanic *kannōn-.