I was watching a TV show, and one scene in a movie theatre goes like this:

Film viewer: We know, sit down.
Jason: Maggie.
Maggie: How are theatre owners gonna know how we feel about this garbage if we just sit through it?
Film viewers: Or stand through it in your case.
Maggie: Oh, can it, will you?

So Maggie was not satisfied with the movie and she stood up in the theatre, which made others uncomfortable and Maggie said "Can it, will you?"

I don't understand this sentence.
Is the meaning that Maggie was mad or just provoked others?
Was she asking others "will you (stand up too?)" or "will you (be angry with me)"?
Does "Can it" mean "can I do that"?

  • 5
    Did you hear this spoken, or did you read it in subtitles? The pronunciation will tell you the meaning. In standard US English pronunciation, can as in "I can do that" is pronounced something like kehn and can as in "Put it in a can" or "Can it" is pronounced more like kaan, with harsher a sound. Here is an example of someone saying "I can put it in a can" so you can hear both pronunciations.
    – stangdon
    Jul 20, 2018 at 12:33
  • The spelling of theatre & the use of 'film viewer' rather than 'movie viewer' would tend to make me think it was a UK show, not US... Jul 20, 2018 at 14:16
  • @Tetsujin - But the only person who says "theatre" is the OP, not the quoted material, and film viewer doesn't seem to be particularly UK; film viewer is more common than movie viewer even in the US English corpus. I suspect can is pronounced differently in (most dialects of) UK English depending on meaning too, but I'd have to let a UK speaker address that.
    – stangdon
    Jul 20, 2018 at 15:41
  • 1
    @stangdon - other than stress for emphasis, there is absolutely no distinction in pronunciation [of 'can'] in Br Eng. Also, the OP's original transcript was an image of the text, which I transcribed for SE [check the edit history]. There is no information, however, as to its source, so we may never know. Jul 20, 2018 at 17:56
  • @Tetsujin if it were British I would expect the passage to talk of cinema owners rather than theatre owners. A cinema is a place to watch films a theatre puts on plays and other such performances.
    – Sarriesfan
    Jul 21, 2018 at 22:07

7 Answers 7


"Can it" in this instance means "Shut up", stop talking - it has nothing to do with ability.

It is very probably a remote reference to canning food to preserve it, the link being that to can something is to close it up tight, to put a lid on it - hence to stop talking, close your mouth.

  • 6
    Excellent! Couldn't even think of it before reading this. +1 for the origin of the phrase. Lovely!
    – Maulik V
    Jul 20, 2018 at 6:41
  • 8
    I can't find out whether it originated in the UK or US, which would definitely sway the issue - UK doesn't use the term 'trash can' at all. ELU kind of agrees that it's from canning food - english.stackexchange.com/q/120407/99969 Jul 20, 2018 at 14:13
  • 1
    "Can" seems to mean "get rid of something" as well. For example, "They wanted to can support for Windows XP sometime in 2010". Jul 20, 2018 at 14:40
  • 5
    'Can' meaning to get rid of is very likely from the US 'trash can' [Br Eng would say 'bin it' as we don't have trash cans, we have rubbish bins] but has absolutely no connection to this usage, of 'shut up'. Jul 20, 2018 at 14:52
  • 2
    Matter of fact, I've heard the phrase "put a lid on it" used to mean the exact same thing.
    – cjl750
    Jul 22, 2018 at 0:10

This is a verb based on use of a can, specifically a trash can.

can, v.³

2. trans. a. U.S. slang....
b. can it: used in the imperative to command someone to stop talking, esp. on a particular subject; ‘shut up’, ‘give it a rest’.

1915 G. Bronson-Howard God's Man vii. i. 398

Archie brooded over his wrongs; his shrill voice rising oftener than pleased Pink's partner. ‘Can it, can it,’ the latter urged.

It's not actually used in its original literal sense—'to put into a trash can'—very much, but this figurative use has continued to be popular.

Note that this use isn't confusing to native speakers at all because the more common verb can ("be able to") needs to be followed by another verb to explain the action one is discussing or at least reference such a verb. This use will be spoken very curtly and forcefully, as a command, and isn't easily confused with the other.

  • 3
    Also, "can it" carries the implication that what's being said isn't worth listening to (thus throw the subect in the trash), while "shut up" could be used when the speaker just wants quiet for a bit.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 20, 2018 at 15:53
  • 4
    Does that OED entry list the etymology for this sense? The section you've quoted doesn't particularly prove the "trash can" theory, and I don't have access to look further, but I'm curious, because I'd always assumed the "food can" origin (related to "put a lid on it").
    – IMSoP
    Jul 20, 2018 at 16:41
  • 3
    I've have likewise always interpreted it to refer to a food "can" -- a jar in which food is preserved. It does not imply worthlessness, but rather putting something away for later, vs being concerned with it now.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 20, 2018 at 19:10

I am 70 years old. Many years ago, 'Can it' the same as 'put a lid on it' meant 'shut it up'. The term came from canning food and got used on people also. Another term from that same 'canning chore' was 'shelf it' and 'put it on the back burner'. When canning, it took a large container and quite a while on the stove. So in order to use the front burners you 'put it on the back burner', because the 'activity' took place on the front burners.


Etymology Online gives this origin:

can (v.2)

"to put up in cans," 1860, from can (n.1), especially "to put up in a sealed container for preservation." Sense of "to fire an employee" is from 1905. Related: Canned; canning.


Literally "can it" means to put it in a can. The idea is that they don't want to hear what you are saying or see what you are doing.


"Can it" is an expression telling someone to shut up or stop what they are doing. As others have already explained it's meaning is based on putting something in a (trash) can.

1 Stop talking; be quiet.
‘“Can it!” I growled’

2 Stop doing something.
‘I told him to can it, ’cause he was getting to be annoying’

From https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/can_it

In this instance, the speaker (Maggie) refers to the unrelated comment made by the film viewers. She talked about "sitting through" the movie, meaning to watch it despite not liking it, to which someone (either jokingly or sarcastically) replies "Or stand through it in your case."

When she herself replies "Oh, can it, will you?", she signals the person to stop joking or talking altogether. "Will you?" simply reinforces this request.

If you rearrange the sentence, the result could be "Oh, will you [shut up]?"


How are theatre owners gonna know how we feel about this garbage

points to a trash can (see lly's answer).

But there might be another meaning:

A film can is the light-tight container used to enclose film stock. They are typically a circular box pressed from thin sheet metal, but plastic examples are also used. Film cans are used to hold unexposed film, exposed film ready for developing and also for the distribution of completed film prints. The last of these does not require the can to be light-tight, but environmental protection and exclusion of dust makes a similar container just as useful.

stack of film cans
A 35mm cinema release print in six 2,000 foot reels, as it would typically be distributed in Europe.

(Source: Wikipedia, photo by LDGE.)

So Maggie was not satisfied with the movie and she stood up in the theatre, which made others uncomfortable and Maggie said "Can it, will you?"

So she might have said: Put the film back into it's film cans.

How are theatre owners gonna know ... if we just sit through it?

Somebody (i.e. Maggie) has to stand up and tell them.

  • 1
    This seems a very unlikely interpretation. Why would Maggie ask another person in the audience to can the film? The other answers are much more probable: she wants the other person to stop talking.
    – David K
    Jul 21, 2018 at 16:50
  • She just said, "How are theatre owners gonna know", and the obvious answer is: Somebody (i.e. Maggie) has to tell them (added this to the answer). I suspect it's deliberately ambiguous.
    – user24582
    Jul 22, 2018 at 7:26
  • 1
    Maggie wasn't talking to the theater owner when she said, "Can it, will you?" It is possible that the writers of the script intended to make a pun on the (very different) use of "can" in the film industry. The primary meaning is completely unambiguous, but this is, after all, a work of fiction.
    – David K
    Jul 22, 2018 at 18:11
  • Standing up and saying it loudly might be a first step in that direction. But I don't know the show, so it's just speculation anyway.
    – user24582
    Jul 22, 2018 at 19:41

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