In a word: canon

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


Though a little word, canon has proved versatile. 

It was once, the Oxford English Dictionary indicates, an alternative spelling for cannon. That sense has been obsolete for centuries, so you may hold your fire. 

It comes to English from French, ultimately from the Greek kanon, or "rule," and it fits in many places where we look for rules. 

It can mean a rule, criterion, or principle, as when one speaks of the canons of good taste. 

It can mean a law or set of laws. The ecclesiastical governance of the Roman Catholic Church is through canon law. 

It can mean a defined set of books. The biblical canon is the set of writings that came to be accepted as authentic in Christianity, mainly over its first five centuries. Literary scholars and pedagogues argue over what should be included in the canon of Western literature, and whether it should be taught at all. 

The canon of the Mass is the part of the liturgy that includes the words of consecration. 

In music, a canon is a work in which a single melody is repeated in different parts, overlapping. In a canon cancrizans, or crab canon, the theme is repeated backward in the second part. 

A canon is also a member of the clergy who is part of a cathedral chapter. In the Episcopal Church the canon to the ordinary is a diocesan administrative official, a sort of chief operating officer for the bishop (the ordinary). Other clergy may be named canons and assigned responsibility in various areas. (It would be good to avoid puns on small bore.) 

Canonical is an adjective meaning according to canon law or included in an accepted list of books. The canonical hours are the appointed times of daily monastic prayer. As a plural noun, canonicals, it refers to the official dress of the clergy. A bishop in full canonicals is quite a sight. 

Example: From "The Autumn of Joan Didion," by Caitlin Flanagan in the January/February 2012 issue of The Atlantic: "Shaken, Roiphe defended the canon with the weirdest praise ever (admitting of her heroine that 'her words are clichés—her sentences and her rhythms and her tics are clichés because we know them so well')."

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