Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue – Day Fifty-Nine

The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was first published at the end of the eighteenth century, and given that the Coronavirus crisis is giving too much time to read books, I thought I’d pick a daily word from it until I got bored…..


This word is described by the dictionary as a “small can”, and in the criminal fraternity, it means the plague. The word comes from the sixteenth century Dutch word ‘kanneken’ which now means cannon, but I think had a different meaning back then that was something like ‘can’ or ‘bucket’.

The above image shows in red the capitalised version of Cannikin, the blue its lower case. And, there was a surge in usage of the word in the early 1970s. This was because Project Cannikin was a large underground nuclear weapons test, given the fluffy name of Cannikin, but it was something much more explosive than a small can, quite literally. Rather than it being a little can, the test involved 400 tonnes of equipment and a shaft that was nearly 2,000 metres deep. The test was controversial because there were fears of earthquakes and tsunamis, and the concern generated by this is what led to the creation of the Greenpeace pressure group.