The Grammarphobia Blog

Yes, we can

Q: Here in America, we have cans and can openers. But in Britain, they have tins and tin openers. Our canned goods come from canneries. Do the British get theirs from tinneries? Yes, I know that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds (or something like that).

A: Excuse me for stealing the punny subject line of your email for the title of this post.

The short answer to your question is that a cannery is a cannery on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cannery” simply as a “factory where meat, fruit, etc. are canned.” Another British reference, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, says it’s “a factory where food is put into cans.”

As for this “can” vs. “tin” business, it’s far too interesting to be dismissed as merely one of the minor language quirks that separate British and American English. In fact, the story of why we have these two usages begins back in Anglo-Saxon days.

The noun “can” has meant a container for holding liquids since it first showed up in Old English, spelled canne, around the year 1000. Here’s a typical example, from Every Man Out of His Humor, a 1598 comedy by Ben Jonson: “Two cannes of beere.”

In the early years, according to the OED, a can could be made of various materials, but the word eventually came to be used primarily for a metal container.

So how did a container of beans or tuna or soup come to be called a “tin” at a Sainsbury’s in Liverpool and a “can” at a Safeway in San Francisco?

It all began with the development of canning in the early 19th century as a method of preserving food for Napoleon’s armies. Nicolas Appert, considered the father of canning, boiled the food in airtight bottles.

So, the first cans used in canning were actually bottles. And we still use the term “canning” for preserving fruit and vegetables at home in Mason jars.

Canning soon spread from France to other countries in Europe as well as to the United States, but commercial canneries found the glass bottles costly and difficult to transport.

A year after Appert’s discovery, an Englishman, Peter Durand, patented a method for preserving food in sealed tin cans.

By the late 19th century, people in Britain were referring to these metal containers as “tins” while people in the US were calling them “cans.”

The first published reference in the OED for this British use of “tin” is from Isabella M. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861): “Many cooks use the tinned turtle … preserved in hermetically-sealed canisters…. The cost of a tin … is about £2.”

The first OED citation for the American usage is from Albert D. Richardson’s 1877 book about the West, Beyond the Mississippi: “Mitchell … was fined two cans of oysters for contempt.”

These containers are primarily made of steel or aluminum now, but the British still refer to them as “tins.” We Americans can’t laugh, though. Our pie pans are usually made of aluminum these days, but we call them “tins.”

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