phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Carry the can

Posted by Smokey Stover on June 23, 2005

In Reply to: Carry the can posted by David FG on June 21, 2005

: : : Hi. Where does the phrase carry the can derive?

: : : thanks

: : I've never found a documented origin - perhaps I haven't spent enough time on it. However, here's what I have in my collection.

: : "To carry the can means to take the blame for something in which others have also taken part and are largely responsible. The origin here is not clear, but probably goes back to the days of servitude when menial tasks had to be performed for the benefit of others, such as the scullery maid working for the head cook."

: I have heard a couple of other explanations (neither of which I find particularly convincing, by the way.)

: One is that beer used to be carried in a can from the mess to soldiers in a can - the one carrying the can being responsible for the beer's safe arrival.

: Another has it that exlosives used in mining and quarrying would be carried to the site in a can. This would not have been a popular task.

: I don't much like either of these, and prefer the servant explanation given above, but I am throwing them in for what they are worth.


The OED seems to prefer the soldier carrying the beer can origin, among the various uncertain possibilities. The citations are often of carrying the can BACK, which might be especially relevant in the case of a beer can. (This was before aluminum throwaway cans.) Bringing the beer is one thing; carrying the empty can back is another. SS