1. a sealed container for food, beverages, etc., as of aluminum, sheet iron coated with tin, or other metal: a can of soup.
  2. a receptacle for garbage, ashes, etc.: a trash can.
  3. a bucket, pail, or other container for holding or carrying liquids: water can.
  4. a drinking cup; tankard.
  5. a metal or plastic container for holding film on cores or reels.
  6. Slang: Usually Vulgar. toilet; bathroom.
  7. Slang. jail: He's been in the can for a week.
  8. Slang: Sometimes Vulgar. buttocks.
  9. cans, Slang. a set of headphones designed to cover the ears. Compare earbuds.
  10. Military Slang.
    1. a depth charge.
    2. a destroyer.
verb (used with object), canned, can·ning.
  1. to preserve by sealing in a can, jar, etc.
  2. Slang. to dismiss; fire.
  3. Slang. to throw (something) away.
  4. Slang. to put a stop to: Can that noise!
  5. to record, as on film or tape.
  1. carry the can, British and Canadian Slang. to take the responsibility.
  2. in the can, recorded on film; completed: The movie is in the can and ready for release.

Origin of can

before 1000; Middle English, Old English canne, cognate with German Kanne, Old Norse kanna, all perhaps < West Germanic; compare Late Latin canna small vessel Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for cans

Contemporary Examples of cans

Historical Examples of cans

British Dictionary definitions for cans


pl n
  1. an informal name for headphones


verb past could (takes an infinitive without to or an implied infinitive) (intr)
  1. used as an auxiliary to indicate ability, skill, or fitness to perform a taskI can run a mile in under four minutes
  2. used as an auxiliary to indicate permission or the right to somethingcan I have a drink?
  3. used as an auxiliary to indicate knowledge of how to do somethinghe can speak three languages fluently
  4. used as an auxiliary to indicate the possibility, opportunity, or likelihoodmy trainer says I can win the race if I really work hard

Word Origin for can

Old English cunnan; related to Old Norse kunna, Old High German kunnan, Latin cognōscere to know, Sanskrit jānāti he knows; see ken, uncouth


See may 1


  1. a container, esp for liquids, usually of thin sheet metala petrol can; beer can
  2. another name (esp US) for tin (def. 2)
  3. Also called: canful the contents of a can or the amount a can will hold
  4. a slang word for prison
  5. US and Canadian a slang word for toilet or buttocksSee toilet
  6. US navy a slang word for destroyer
  7. navy slang a depth charge
  8. a shallow cylindrical metal container of varying size used for storing and handling film
  9. can of worms informal a complicated problem
  10. carry the can See carry (def. 37)
  11. in the can
    1. (of a film, piece of music, etc) having been recorded, processed, edited, etc
    2. informalarranged or agreedthe contract is almost in the can
verb cans, canning or canned
  1. to put (food, etc) into a can or cans; preserve in a can
  2. (tr) US slang to dismiss from a job
  3. (tr) US informal to stop (doing something annoying or making an annoying noise) (esp in the phrase can it!)
  4. (tr) informal to reject or discard

Word Origin for can

Old English canne; related to Old Norse, Old High German kanna, Irish gann, Swedish kana sled
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for cans



"to put up in cans," 1860, from can (n.1). Sense of "to fire an employee" is from 1905. Related: Canned; canning.



Old English 1st & 3rd person singular present indicative of cunnan "know, have power to, be able," (also "to have carnal knowledge"), from Proto-Germanic *kunnan "to be mentally able, to have learned" (cf. Old Norse kenna "to know, make known," Old Frisian kanna "to recognize, admit," German kennen "to know," Gothic kannjan "to make known"), from PIE root *gno- (see know).

Absorbing the third sense of "to know," that of "to know how to do something" (in addition to "to know as a fact" and "to be acquainted with" something or someone). An Old English preterite-present verb, its original past participle, couth, survived only in its negation (see uncouth), but cf. could. The present participle has spun off as cunning.



Old English canne "a cup, container," from Proto-Germanic *kanna (cf. Old Saxon, Old Norse, Swedish kanna, Middle Dutch kanne, Dutch kan, Old High German channa, German Kanne). Probably an early borrowing from Late Latin canna "container, vessel," from Latin canna "reed," also "reed pipe, small boat;" but the sense evolution is difficult.

Modern "air-tight vessel of tinned iron" is from 1867 (can-opener is from 1877). Slang meaning "toilet" is c.1900, said to be a shortening of piss-can. Meaning "buttocks" is from c.1910.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Idioms and Phrases with cans


In addition to the idioms beginning with can

  • can do with
  • canned laughter
  • can of worms

also see:

  • as best one can
  • before you can say Jack Robinson
  • bite off more than one can chew
  • carry the can
  • catch as catch can
  • game that two can play
  • get the ax (can)
  • in the can
  • more than one can shake a stick at
  • no can do
  • you can bet your ass
  • you can lead a horse to water
  • you can say that again
  • you never can tell

Also see undercan't.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.