I enjoy words and sniffing out the sometimes obscure origins of words and expressions we regularly use, often with little thought as to how and why they come to mean what we think they mean.
Here’s one for today:
Canvass (with the double ‘s’) means to solicit votes or opinions, engage in a political campaign or to examine carefully’. (Macquarie Compact Dictionary, 2017.)
So why does it look and sound so close to ‘canvas’, with the single ‘s’, which of course refers to a heavy, finely woven cloth – such as tent fabric or sails?
The answer seems to lie in the fact that both words come from the Latin cannabis (hemp), from which sheets and flags were often made. To canvass once referred to a game, which sometimes doubled as a form of light punishment. It involved a person lying in the centre of a large sheet, and others tossing them around on the stretched out sheet – a bit like modern day games played in a park with parachute silk. From this origin, canvass came to mean ‘to stir up or punish’. Later, that meaning included ‘evaluation by a crowd’ – like ‘running an idea up a flagpole’. Because flags, of course, were also made of canvas- like material.
So these convoluted shifts in meaning lead us from canvas to canvass. A fun example of the way language weaves its way through time, changing and mutating as it goes.