verb (1)
\kən, ˈkan also ˈken; dialectal ˈkin\
past could\ kəd , ˈku̇d \; present singular & plural can

Definition of can 

(Entry 1 of 5)

transitive verb

1 obsolete : know, understand

2 archaic : to be able to do, make, or accomplish

intransitive verb

archaic : to have knowledge or skill

auxiliary verb

1a : know how to She can read.

b : be physically or mentally able to He can lift 200 pounds.

c used to indicate possibility Do you think he can still be alive?Those things can happen. sometimes used interchangeably with may

d : be permitted by conscience or feeling to can hardly blame her

e : be made possible or probable by circumstances to he can hardly have meant that

f : be inherently able or designed to everything that money can buy

g : be logically or axiologically able to 2 + 2 can also be written 3 + 1.

h : be enabled by law, agreement, or custom to Congress can declare war.

2 : have permission to used interchangeably with may You can go now if you like.


\ˈkan \
plural cans

Definition of can (Entry 2 of 5)

1 : a usually cylindrical receptacle:

a : a vessel for holding liquids specifically : a drinking vessel … in his hand did bear a boozing can— Edmund Spenser

b : a usually metal typically cylindrical receptacle usually with an open top, often with a removable cover, and sometimes with a spout or side handles (as for holding liquid or trash)

c : a container (as of tinplate) in which products (such as perishable foods) are hermetically sealed for preservation until use a can of beans

d : a jar for packing or preserving fruit or vegetables

e : a recessed lighting fixture Augment natural light with recessed cans in the ceiling, sconces on side walls, or a table lamp on a shelf …— Jill Connors

2 : jail The cops threw him in the can.

3a : toilet sitting on the can

b : bathroom sense 1 He locked himself in the can and wouldn't come out.

4 : buttocks He needs a kick in the can.

5 : destroyer sense 2 served on a can during the battle

6 : headphone usually plural You don't realize just how noisy it is inside a plane until you put on a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones … . I generally leave the noise-cancelling cans on even when I'm not listening to anything at all—the relative quiet makes a long trip less stressful.— Steven Morgenstern

in the can

of a film or videotape : completed and ready for release


verb (2)
\ˈkan \
canned; canning

Definition of can (Entry 3 of 5)

transitive verb

1a : to put in a can : preserve by sealing in airtight cans or jars can tomatoes

b : to hit (a golf shot) into the cup

c : to hit (a shot) in basketball

2 : to discharge from employment got canned for being late so often

3 slang : to put a stop or end to were told to can the chatter


abbreviation (1)

Definition of can (Entry 4 of 5)

1 canceled; cancellation

2 cannon

3 canto


abbreviation (2)
variants: or Canad

Definition of Can (Entry 5 of 5)

Canada; Canadian

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Other Words from can


canful \ ˈkan-​ˌfu̇l \ noun

Verb (2)

canner noun

Can vs. May: Usage Guide

Verb (1)

Can and may are most frequently interchangeable in uses denoting possibility; because the possibility of one's doing something may depend on another's acquiescence, they have also become interchangeable in the sense denoting permission. The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts. May is relatively rare in negative constructions (mayn't is not common); cannot and can't are usual in such contexts.

Examples of can in a Sentence


He ate the whole can of beans. the shelter stores huge cans of water for an emergency

Recent Examples on the Web: Noun

Back home in North America, raccoons are a neighborhood scourge—upending trash cans, eating the cat food, biting dogs, moving into the garage. Dasl Yoon, WSJ, "That Raccoon Rooting Through Your Trash Could Be a Big Star in Seoul," 7 Nov. 2018 The technology works by deploying three modules horizontally, something that looks like three nesting cans. Megan Barber, Curbed, "5 campers pushing RV design into the future," 28 Sep. 2018 The brewery will offer 16-ounce cans to go that are sealed at the bar. Kathy Flanigan, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Vennture Brew Co. brings coffee and beer to Washington Heights neighborhood," 11 July 2018 Fire Marshal Byron Turnquist told the Free Press that the family set off the fireworks to celebrate July 4th, then placed them in the trash can and went inside. Marc Daalder, Detroit Free Press, "Fireworks left in trash set West Bloomfield house ablaze," 5 July 2018 Dispose of the plastic bags in the outside trash can. Melissa Reinert,, "Yard sale shopper: Prepare and beware," 5 July 2018 The investigation by the New Haven Fire Department began when a fire was set in a trash can within the range of surveillance cameras on the New Haven Public Library, officials said. Ruth Bruno,, "New Haven Man Charged With Arson After 30 Fires Set In City Trash Cans," 18 June 2018 His father and his uncles fished off a boat, using live bait kept in a coffee can. Heather Radke, Longreads, "A Beginner’s Guide to Fly Fishing With Your Father," 16 June 2018 After his death, DeBrodie was allegedly left in the bathtub for two or three days before he was dumped in the trash can on which cement was then poured before being placed in a storage unit, where his body was ultimately found., "Developmentally Disabled Man Allegedly Did Labor for Caretaker Before Body Was Found Encased in Concrete," 8 June 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'can.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of can

Verb (1)

before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at transitive sense 1


before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Verb (2)

1859, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for can

Verb (1)

Middle English (1st & 3rd singular present indicative), from Old English; akin to Old High German kan (1st & 3rd singular present indicative) know, am able, Old English cnāwan to know — more at know


Middle English canne, from Old English; akin to Old High German channa

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Statistics for can

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for can

The first known use of can was before the 12th century

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More Definitions for can



English Language Learners Definition of can

: a closed metal container that is usually shaped like a cylinder and that holds food or drink

: the food or drink that is in a can

: a metal or plastic container that has a removable top and that is used for holding liquid, trash, etc.

\kən, ˈkan\
past could\ kəd, ˈku̇d \; present singular & plural can

Kids Definition of can

 (Entry 1 of 3)

1 : know how to We can read.

2 : be able to I can hear you.

3 : be permitted by conscience or feeling to They can hardly blame me.

4 : have permission to You can go now.

5 : to be possible Can he still be alive?


\ˈkan \

Kids Definition of can (Entry 2 of 3)

1 : a metal container usually shaped like a cylinder a soda can

2 : the contents of a can Add a can of tomatoes.


\ˈkan \
canned; canning

Kids Definition of can (Entry 3 of 3)

: to prepare for later use by sealing in an airtight can or jar Let's can peaches for winter.

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Comments on can

What made you want to look up can? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


playful or foolish behavior

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