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What Does It Mean to "Carry the Can"?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2016
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The English idiom “carry the can” is used to refer to an individual or party that bears responsibility, assumes leadership, or takes on a task. The phrase is often used for a party that agrees to accept blame for a negative situation. It has a slightly negative connotation, and the average speaker may understand that it is something, which many parties often desire to avoid.

In terms of its origin, many word historians contend that “carry the can” is derived from an original military usage. The exact origins of this phrase are under debate. Some suggest that someone who originally “carried the can” was the person who brought beer or drinks to a military unit, where spilling the drinks was something for which that person would bear ultimate responsibility. Others suggest that the “can” in question was a container for explosives. All of these may figure into the eventual use of “carry the can” as something to be avoided, or as something that makes those who accept it “heroic.”

Some historians have traced the origin of this phrase to the Royal Navy in the 1920s. An alternate opinion suggests that this phrase was derived from an older phrase “carry the cag” or “carry the keg” which related to carrying a grudge. In any case, the modern usage relates much more to the carrying of something undesirable and with a certain amount of liability.

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In modern English, there are many different ways to express a similar idea without using the phrase “carry the can.” Some are even more idiomatic and relate to more specific situations, for example, if an English speaker said that a responsible party were willing to “put [his or her] head on the chopping block” or “stick [his or her] head out.” These phrases illustrate some sort of exposure and vulnerability.

The use of “carry the can” is traditionally more familiar to British English speakers than it is in America. One of the most prominent alternatives in American English is the frequent use of the phrase “the buck stops here,” which is attributed to an American president and refers to the alternate responsibility of that, or another, executive position; this phrase, however, has a more positive connotation. Another very different phrase refers to liability in a business context, where someone who accepts undesired responsibility is willing to “take one for the team.” Among many other ways to express this idea, more technical phrases include “bear blame” or “accept the blame.”

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