The spelling is similar and the meaning so different. Wiktionary indicates that there might be some relation by linking to canon from cannon but I didn't see any specific statements regarding their relationship.

Are these related? How could they evolve into such different meanings?

  • 1
    They probably have not evolved into different meanings, but more likely evolved independently from unrelated sources and stayed different.
    – Kris
    Feb 1, 2012 at 12:35
  • 2
    Cannon are used to shoot holes in canon.
    – Gnawme
    Feb 1, 2012 at 21:58
  • Bells are secured by things on top that are called canons. They have holes in but are short. It's how typical bells are suspended. Not exactly helpful I know, but all part of the fun.
    – Aethelbald
    Jan 25, 2018 at 17:20

5 Answers 5


They may be distantly related, but it cannot be known for certain. From etymonline.com:

1400, "tube for projectiles," from O.Fr. canon (14c.), from It. cannone "large tube," augmentive of L. canna "reed, tube" (see cane). ... Spelling not differentiated from canon till c.1800.

And Latin canna is from Greek kanna, "reed".

canon (1)
"church law," O.E., from L.L. canon, in classical L., "measuring line, rule," from Gk. kanon "any straight rod or bar; rule; standard of excellence," perhaps from [Greek] kanna "reed" (see cane). Taken in ecclesiastical sense for "decree of the Church," and as such passed through L.L. to O.E.

So cannon derived from Greek kanna "reed" (both are hollow tubes), and canon may have derived from Greek kanna "reed" (both are straight rules).

Even if these words are not connected, Anatoly Liberman's Word Origins And How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone explains many other similar can- words are connected: cane as a walking stick, as a cane chair and as cane sugar are from a "hollow stem", from Latin canna "reed, cane, tube, pipe". Can "pot" via Latin canna "vessel", canal and channel are "pipes" via French, as is canyon a "pipe" but via Spanish. The Italian canellone and cannoli are "small tubes".

  • Semantically 'connected' words may not have common etymological origins, technically speaking. Words probably evolved from primitive sounds and considering such 'original' vocabulary to be extremely limited, every word is a cousin?
    – Kris
    Feb 2, 2012 at 10:49
  • @Kris In the same way that all humans are related to each other, all words are probably also related to each other (unless language evolved separately in several places). But that’s going back more than 100,000 years, which is far beyond the limits of what we’ll ever be able to realistically reconstruct. The words mentioned in this answer are all related within the relatively short period of time that is the written history of Latin and Greek. That is about 50,000 per cent more certain and definite than ‘original’ (i.e., Proto-World) vocabulary. Oct 9, 2014 at 22:12

It depends on which meanings you have in mind. Canon meaning, among other things, a rule, law, or decree and a body of writings is, through Latin and Old English, from the Greek κανών, meaning ‘rule’. Cannon meaning ‘gun’ has a quite different etymology. It has a core meaning of a tube, or cylindrical bore and has cognates in Provençal, Catalan, Spanish and Italian.

  • I can see the potential for a common root, in that one meaning of canon is a "measuring rod". Rod to tube isn't far.
    – slim
    Feb 1, 2012 at 12:56
  • 1
    They both come from the same PIE root (Gk κάννα and La canna are clearly cognate), and the meaning is the same in both cases -- long rigid thing. I.e, reed, rod, rule, ruler (remember the first ruler you ever saw? In grade school?), cane, cannon, canon. Rules you have to follow refer to the rod that's hanging over you preparing to beat you if you don't. Louis XIV of France had Ultima Ratio Regum ("The final argument of kings") cast on the cannons of his armies. Feb 1, 2012 at 17:39
  • @JohnLawler: If I could promote your comment to an answer, I would.
    – John Y
    Feb 1, 2012 at 17:55

From Latin canōn, from Ancient Greek κανών (kanón, “measuring rod, standard”), akin to κάννα (kanna, “reed”), perhaps from Semitic (compare Arabic قانون (Qānūn, “law”) Hebrew קנה (qaneh, “reed”)).

Origin circa 1400 A.D. from Old French canon, from Italian cannone, from Latin canna. This spelling was not fixed until circa 1800.

The one with single n seems much older than the other.

  • Yes, I read that, too. But it doesn't tell me that they are unrelated. The Latin canna could very well have something to do with the sources of canon (perhaps because you used a measuring rod to determine the cannon's inner diameter? or because you use a cannon to enforce the law?)
    – bitmask
    Feb 1, 2012 at 12:52
  • Check this for the rod/reed vs. tube story and the similarities -- that should not suggest a relationship, though. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannon#Etymology_and_terminology
    – Kris
    Feb 1, 2012 at 13:03

The earliest cannons (hollow iron tubes) were reinforced with bands spaced along their length to give added strength. The result gave the appearance of a reed (bamboo, sugar cane, etc.), thus the name. Measuring rods (slender, rigid, with marks uniformly spaced) had the appearance of reeds also, thus the word for cane was used to refer to a standard of measurement (canon).

  • 2
    Is this your original thought? If you are paraphrasing some source, the "canon" requires a citation.
    – Theresa
    Oct 9, 2014 at 22:17

Part of the symbolism developed in Republican Rome was the a bundle of rods (fasces) that indicated the magistrate's judicial powers. So you can see how canna (rod) could come to mean law.

  • This has the beginnings of what might be a very good answer, but it needs to be supported by links to references online in order to be worthy of an up-vote. Welcome to EL&U.
    – Nigel J
    May 1, 2018 at 2:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.