Canvas - canvass

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Canvas and canvass form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these.

Do not confuse the homophones 'canvas' and 'canvass'. Both words are pronounced KAN-ves, IPA: /ˈkæn vəs/. They are now always spelled differently, and writers should be careful to maintain the distinction; although they share a derivation, and both used to be spelled in either way.

Canvas - the word is always a noun - is a type of coarse, heavy cloth made from hemp, jute,or cotton. Canvas, the material, is used

  • by artists for painting on, usually in oils. And so 'canvas' has come to be used to refer to the oil painting itself. In this use the word is a count noun, i.e., has a plural and in the singular must have the definite or indefinite article, as in 'The curator of the gallery has ordered six canvases in the collection to be cleaned and has discovered a canvas by Rubens which it was thought had been lost'. (The plural of 'canvas' is either 'canvases' or 'canvasses'.) Rather similarly, the piece of coarse, loosely woven cloth on which tapestry may be done is also sometimes called a canvas.
  • for making ships' sails. And so 'canvas' has come to be used to refer to the sails of a ship collectively. (In this use the word does not have a plural.) A ship which has its sails unfurled may be said to be under canvas.
  • for making tents. And so 'canvas' may be used to refer to a tent or tents collectively. (In this use the word does not have a plural). To be in a tent is to be under canvas, as in 'We spent the night under canvas'.
  • for the floor of a boxing ring. And so 'canvas' may be used for the floor of the ring itself. (In this use the word always requires the definite article.) A boxer who has been knocked out by his opponent and is lying unconscious on the floor of the ring may be said to be on the canvas.

The word 'canvas' comes originally, through the Norman French canevas, from the Latin cannabis, which means 'hemp'.

The word 'canvass' is usually a verb, but may also be a noun. As a verb to 'canvass' has a number of related uses. In a political context to canvass is to ask voters about their voting intentions and/or to ask for their votes, in a commercial context it is to ask potential clients for orders for one's company, and more generally it is to ask a group of people about their opinions or feelings on some matter - for example, the local authority may canvass local opinion about fortnightly refuse collection or a proposed new supermarket in the area. The word can also mean 'to raise for debate or discussion', particularly in a formal or semi-formal context, as in 'The chairman canvassed the possibility of increasing the membership fees'.

As a noun, a canvass is either a request for votes, orders, etc., or a survey of opinion on some issue. The activity of requesting votes or surveying opinion, especially in a political context, is canvassing and a person who engages in the activity is a canvasser. (Thus a canvasser might complain that canvassing was taking up too much of his time.)

The etymology of the word 'canvass' is uncertain. It is thought to come from an obsolete verb 'to canvas', which meant 'to toss someone in a canvas sheet' and hence 'to harass or criticize', but the details of the derivation are not known.