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Hallo again to all.

A while ago, a friend new to the church asked us to explain the word 'canon', which shows up often in matters Anglican. We started to explain that it was a complicated 'church word', with many meanings, secular and sacred — and launched into them.

For example, the Reverend Canon Geoffrey Tomlinson was once vicar of the City of Lancaster. Here are the Canons of the Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Alabama. A scholar writing about William Wordsworth will often refer to his body of work as 'the Wordsworth canon'. And of course there is a world-famous brand of cameras and electronics named Canon, with a capital C. A piece of music that replicates the melody to achieve harmony is called a 'canon'; most everyone has heard of Pachelbel's Canon, and we all know how to sing 'Row, row, row your boat.'

The word shows up with other meanings in other parts of speech. The process of certifying someone to be a saint is called 'canonization', the verb 'to canonise' (or 'canonize'). Mathematicians use the term 'canonical form' to refer to the standard way of writing an equation or expression. Computer scientists describe as 'canonical' something that is the original, unmodified, or most-common version of something. If you put a tilde over the 'n', the word becomes 'cañon', which in English is usually spelled 'canyon': a big ravine carved by water. And, of course, if you spell it 'cannon', it's a different word, a military weapon.

The word 'canon' gets around, doesn't it? It all started with the Greek word kanon, meaning 'reed' or 'cane'. A dried reed was long and straight and lightweight, and (suitably marked) was used for measuring. In time, the kanon of something referred to its measure.

It's not a stretch to imagine how kanon evolved to have these multifarious meanings. From 'measure' to 'that against which things are measured', so that, for example 'the Wordsworth canon' is the collection of works by William Wordsworth that define him as a writer. If a poem were to be discovered that might have been written by Wordsworth, if it were found authentic by scholars, it would then be added to the Wordsworth canon. In a sense, canonised: if the collection of recognised saints is the canon of saints, then canonising a new saint means to add that person to that canon of saints. If a kanon measures, it is a rule. So the canons of a church are its rules. The term 'canon law' has come to mean 'church law', to distinguish it from secular law. There are canon courts and canon lawyers, though not canon juries.

It's an easy leap from 'rule' to 'people who live under a rule': the canons of a cathedral. In modern times the word has come to include people, lay and ordained, who serve a cathedral, even if they do not live under a rule.

Reeds are hollow (surely you've read of people hiding under water by breathing through a reed), and, as such, can be used as blowguns to shoot small objects with a puff of breath. 'Tis not at all a stretch of the imagination to go from a small blowgun kanon to a huge iron naval cannon.

The one meaning of canon that we can't easily trace back to reeds of the Old-Testament era is that of Pachelbel's Canon, the musical form. We can construct an argument around the word 'measure', but it seems strained.

After we were done with our explanation, we realised that, like so much about our church, this word is not so much complex as just venerable. It's retained its old meanings despite the inevitable evolution of language. To come to know the riches of our Church — through its ocasionally quirky nouns, adjectives, and verbs — is to be more conversant with our past.

See you next week.

Cynthia's signature
Brian's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 12 June 2005

PS. Two can(n)ons in one, from an old issue of Punch:


A thin blue line
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