Like a scrapbook full of beets.

Dear Word Detective:  I recently bought one of those home vacuum-sealing gizmos, which has proven quite useful since I’m on a special diabetic diet and often work long hours.  Now I can do lots of cooking on one weekend a month and bag up and freeze or refrigerate a bunch of portion-controlled meals.  Result: All the convenience of store-bought microwave dinners without the boatloads of sodium, sugar, fat and other things I’m supposed to keep away from.  For my birthday I got a jar-sealing attachment, and that leads me to my question.  The jar thingy is designed to work with “mason” or “canning” jars.   So, why are the jars used for preserving fruits and veggies and the like called “mason” jars and why is the process of sealing such stuff in glass jars called “canning”? — Joseph DeMartino.

Well, there you go.  At least some people appreciate useful gizmos as gifts.  A certain person I seem to have married received a very nice paper shredder for Christmas a few years ago.  Her reaction, contrary to my expectations, did not peg the enthusiasm meter.  But now, without fail, she mentions said gift within twenty minutes of meeting anyone.

What makes this especially odd is that she has yet to open the box.

The use of “can” to mean “seal food in a glass jar” does seem illogical, until we note that the process of preserving food in cans uses roughly the same method you use in “putting up” food in jars, namely heating the food in the vessel to eliminate bacteria and then sealing the container with a vacuum.  This method of preserving food was invented in the late 18th century by Nicolas Appert in France in response to a call by Napoleon Bonaparte for a system of supplying French troops with preserved food that could both be easily transported overseas and actually eaten.  (Existing methods relied on drying, smoking, and/or salting the food.)  Appert’s invention used fragile glass bottles, however, and it was only with the substitution of durable tin cans by Peter Durand of England that the process really took off and led to a worldwide revolution in preserving food.  The word “can,” by the way, comes from the Latin “canna” (meaning “container”), and is unrelated to “can” meaning “to be able,” which comes from a Germanic root meaning “to know.”

Sealing food in metal cans, however, has never really proven practical in the home kitchen (sealing the cans pretty much requires soldering, for instance), so the use of glass containers has been far more successful.  With the success of commercial canning, it was natural to use “can” as the verb for “putting up” food in jars (perhaps especially since “jar” as a verb in this context raises the specter of broken glass on the floor).  The Mason jar, a heavy glass jar with a threaded lid sealed by a rubber grommet, was invented by tinsmith John Mason in 1858, and the simplicity and durability of his design has made the Mason jar the de facto standard of home canning ever since.

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