While looking for the origin of the Spanish and Portuguese word cana, which in several South-American countries means ‘jail’, ‘police’, and ‘police officer’, I came across the suggestion that it may come from the Italian mettere in cana (mettere in canna perhaps?) which would mean ‘to arrest, to put in jail’ (Spanish Wikipedia).

I looked up canna (it looks as though cana is not even an Italian word) in various Italian online dictionaries, including the rather detailed Treccani, and could not find mettere in canna or any sense of canna related to jail or the police.

So is or was mettere in canna ever used to mean ‘to arrest’? Which sense of canna would this come from?

  • 1
    Never, ever heard anything even similar to that. Just to hazard a very wild guess, might there be some (perhaps misunderstood) link with cane (“dog”, also used figuratively in several senses) or canaglia (“scoundrel”, also etymologically related to cane)? Or, with the idiom essere povero in canna (to be destitute)? Just some brainstorming...
    – DaG
    Oct 30, 2016 at 13:11
  • @DaG Thanks for that. There are tons of suggestions for the origin of that cana; the most plausible to me is incaenare which is (I hope it is) incatenare in a Venetian dialect (along with cana, there is also encanar, 'to arrest').
    – Jacinto
    Oct 30, 2016 at 14:02
  • Ernesto Ferrero which, according to Spanish Wikipedia, claims such Italian origin of this word, is the Italian writer Ernesto Ferrero?
    – Charo
    Oct 30, 2016 at 14:59
  • @Charo Mettere in canna was suggested by Américo Castro. Ernesto Ferrero (don't know whether he is the Ernesto Ferrero) says it is because the police in Verona are called canna on account of the pale colour of their uniforms.
    – Jacinto
    Oct 30, 2016 at 15:06
  • Is this question somehow related to the one about the origin of "can" meaning "jail"?
    – user519
    Oct 30, 2016 at 16:50

3 Answers 3


The expression "mettere in canna" has nothing to do with jail but it descends from the habit/operation of putting the bayonet barrel, that is the knife attached to rifles used in the past especially by the Napoleonic army and during World War I. Figuratively it means to prepare yourself to do something very challenging and difficult.

  • Do you also say mettere in canna for bayonets? The formal expression is inastare (la baionetta).
    – DaG
    Oct 30, 2016 at 22:22
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    Well, to put tha bullet into a weapon should be "mettere il colpo in canna" whereas "mettere in canna" is like innestare la baionetta, an action which was usually performed when the soldier was out of bullets and was about to fight hand-to-hand
    – abarisone
    Oct 31, 2016 at 6:06

I never heard of an usage of "mettere in canna" as "to arrest". On my experience, "canna" here is meant as the barrel of a fire weapon (e.g. a shotgun). So "mettere in canna" means something like "I have loaded the weapon and I am ready to fire" a figurative expression that could mean "everything is ready (to do something)"

  • 2
    Do you mean mettere in canna in the same sense in which we might say colpo in canna? I am not sure this usage is what's referred in the OP.
    – Denis Nardin
    Oct 31, 2016 at 1:26
  • I've never heard of a different usage... Oct 31, 2016 at 11:06
  • Expressions that means "put in prison" that I am aware of are "mettere al gabbio" or "mettere in gattabuia" Oct 31, 2016 at 11:23
  • @DenisNardin I don't know what I referred in the question is any actual usage at all. I found the claim mettere in cana meant 'to arrest'; couldn't find anything in the dictionaries to support that claim. So I asked. There are usages that do not come in dictionaries, Italy being such a diverse country and all, so maybe someone would know something that's not in the dictionaries.
    – Jacinto
    Oct 31, 2016 at 13:20

I would say YES, in some dialects. As in English, "the can" can mean jail, so putting someone in the "can" could mean putting them in jail. Also, as in English, "can" can mean ass, so "mettere denare in canna" of a donkey means to put money in the ass of a donkey (and call him "sir").

  • 4
    Which dialects? And are you sure that some Italian dialects use “can”, exactly as in English? And where in the English-speaking world do “can” mean “ass”? And what does “to put money in the ass of a donkey” mean (I assume you don't mean it literally)?
    – DaG
    Apr 28, 2017 at 11:56

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