Yes we can

This image came to me via Ann Burlingham on Facebook (I don’t know the ultimate source):

[Added 10/8/13. Arthur Prokosch posted the source on Facebook: Preserving TraditionsPreserving our harvest, our heritage, our community, and our future.]


A pun on can ‘be able’ vs. can ‘preserve (food) in a can’ (or, in this case, a Mason jar).

The same pun, from the Heinz company:


And from the Obama political campaign, where “Yes we can” was a slogan:


The ultimate source is probably “We Can Do It!”. From Wikipedia:

“We Can Do It!” is an American wartime propaganda poster produced by J. Howard Miller in 1943 for Westinghouse Electric as an inspirational image to boost worker morale. The poster is generally thought to be based on a black-and-white wire service photograph taken of a Michigan factory worker named Geraldine Hoff.

The poster was seen very little during World War II. It was rediscovered in the early 1980s and widely reproduced in many forms, often called “We Can Do It!” but also called “Rosie the Riveter” after the iconic figure of a strong female war production worker. The “We Can Do It!” image was used to promote feminism and other political issues beginning in the 1980s.


Now a note on the two verbs can. In a wide range of English dialects, these are homophones (the exact realization of the vowel varying from dialect to dialect). But in some (including mine) they have split. From Wikipedia:

In the sociolinguistics of English, æ tensing is a process that occurs in some accents of North American English (and in nearly all before a nasal consonant) by which the vowel [æ] is raised and lengthened or diphthongized in various environments. The realization of this “tense æ” varies from [æ̝ˑ] to [ɛə] to [eə] to [ɪə], depending on the speaker’s regional accent. A common realization is [eə] (that is, a centering diphthong with a starting point closer than the vowel [ɛ] as in dress); that transcription will be used for convenience in this article.

Phonemic æ tensing in the Mid-Atlantic region: In Baltimore, Philadelphia and metropolitan New York, the tense /eə/ is a separate phoneme from /æ/ (in Labovian linguistic variable notation, the phonemes are represented as (aeh) and (ae) respectively), since certain minimal pairs can be found:

can /keən/ ‘metal container’ vs. can /kæn/ ‘be able’
halve /heəv/ vs. have /hæv/

My own pronunciations are from the broader Philadelphia area; æ tensing has spread out from the city. So for me, the verbs in #1-#3 are phonetically similar but not homophones. (In the same vein, the slogan “Don’t get mad, better get Glad” doesn’t rhyme for me, though it’s close.)

4 Responses to “Yes we can”

  1. AJD Says:

    It’s also the case that some people have auxiliary “can” with the DRESS vowel and contrast it with noun “can” in that way.

    I’m surprised that you say “mad” and “glad” don’t quite rhyme for you, since in the canonical Philadelphia system they do.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well they don’t for me. And if I recall correctly, they didn’t for Philadelphian Charles Ferguson either. There’s a lot of lexical specificity in the matter.

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