In trying to discover the roots of the verb "canvassing", I found this:

[From obsolete canvass, to toss in a canvas sheet as punishment, from canvas.] .1

What does this mean?

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    What does what mean? What do you mean, "what does it mean"? What isn't clear? – Karl Knechtel Sep 4 '11 at 8:50
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    @Karl I think "to toss in a canvas sheet as punishment" is pretty unclear unless you understand how that is accomplished. – Kit Z. Fox Sep 4 '11 at 11:33
  • Yes, KitΘδς has got what I was trying ask. I'm unclear what that phrase means. I welcome edits for clarification. – Arkive Sep 4 '11 at 15:09

The phrasing 'toss in a canvas sheet' is confusing. What it is trying to convey is the formerly common activity of a group of people holding a stretched sheet of canvas on which another individual is lying. The group repeatedly throwing the person on the sheet into the air and then catching him or her. This was done usually as a playful activity but also as a form of light punishment and public ridicule. Canvassing from this derivation is thus a metaphor something akin to 'running an idea up a flagpole' or 'hopping a ball' thus indicating one is subjecting oneself to rigorous evaluation by the crowd - often for their boisterous entertainment. There's an illustration of the practice at Guttenburg. Search for 'Tossing up for Turkey at Christmas Time'

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  • A good description of "toss in a canvas sheet" and its evolution. Welcome to EL&U! – Mari-Lou A Apr 17 '14 at 9:40
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    Please edit your answer and include this link which has the illustration you mentioned. At EL&U the best answers are self-contained. gutenberg.org/files/12860/12860-h/12860-h.htm – Mari-Lou A Apr 17 '14 at 13:22

See this word history:

The word canvas came into Middle English, via Old Northern French canevas, from the Latin name for hemp, cannabis: hemp is the raw material traditionally used in making canvas, and is also the source of cannabis itself. The noun canvas (earlier spelled with a double -s) is also linked with the verb canvass, which originally meant ‘toss in a canvas sheet’ (a practice carried out both in fun and as a punishment); canvass then came to mean ‘assault, attack’ or ‘criticize’, and later ‘scrutinize in order to reject invalid votes’, from which developed the modern sense, ‘solicit votes’.

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  • I think the OP wants to know what "tossed in a canvas sheet" entails, i.e., a bunch of people hold the edges of the sheet and pull it to lift the person on the sheet into the air. – Kit Z. Fox Sep 4 '11 at 11:32
  • @KitΘδς: I rather doubt OP wants to know the precise details of what the original "canvassing" involved, except insofar as this will enable him to understand how it comes to have its present meaning. In light of that, I think Paul's answer here covers the question perfectly well. – FumbleFingers Sep 4 '11 at 13:01
  • @Paul: I'm sure "canvass" is often used to mean "solicit votes" today, but I feel this itself is a more recent shift of meaning. Depending on context, I still often understand it to mean "identify voting intentions", which would have followed naturally from "scrutinise & reject invalid votes". Because politics is an inherently deceitful business, I think political jargon/slang probably "evolves" more than language on average. – FumbleFingers Sep 4 '11 at 13:07

Perhaps winners were tossed into the air by supporters holding the canvas sheet.

Thus supporters came to be known as canvasers.

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