Monday, December 15, 2008


We use the word canvass in a decidedly political sense these days. Political operatives canvass a district to gauge the number of potential votes. They probe and scrutinize and solicit individual voters. It's also the process used in vote recounts when technically invalid votes are rejected. Ask Al Franken.

The word conjures up the material known as canvas, a strong or coarse unbleached cloth made of hemp or flax, used for sails of ships, for tents, by painters for oil-paintings, and even for clothing.

It should bring up this image because canvass started life meaning "to toss someone in a sheet of canvas," either as punishment or as sport. From there, it transmuted into buffeting or battering, assaulting, editing and criticizing a piece of writing, investigating, debating, rejecting bad votes, bargaining, soliciting votes, and interviewing for political purposes.

All this happened over the course of 300 years.

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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