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VERBS, AUXILIARY. May, can; original and subsequent meaning

Can, May, Might. May originally meant "to be able" (E. E. "mag;" A.-S. "magan;" German "mögen"). A trace of this meaning exists in the noun "might," which still means "ability." Thus we find “I am so hungry that I may (can) not slepe.” CHAUCER, Monke's Tale, 14,744. “Now help me, lady, sith ye may and can.” Knighte's Tale, 2,314. In the last passage may means "can," and "ye can" means "ye have knowledge or skill." This, the original meaning of "can," is found, though very rarely, in Shakespeare:

“I've seen myself and served against the French,
And they can well on horseback.

i.e. "they are well skilled."

“And the priest in surplice white
That defunctive music can.

And perhaps in

“The sum of all I can, I have disclosed;
Why or for what these nobles were committed
Is all unknown to me, my gracious lady.

“The strong'st suggestion
Our worser genius can

A trace of this emphatic use of can is found in

“What can man's wisdom
In the restoring his bereaved sense?

But, as "can" (which even in A.-S. meant "I know how to" and therefore "I am able") gradually began to encroach on may, and to assume the meaning "to be able," may was compelled to migrate from "ability" to "possibility" and "lawfulness." Thus "mögen" signifies moral, "können" physical, possibility. In the following passage: “From hence it comes that this babe's bloody hand
May not be cleansed with water of this well,” F. Q. ii. 10. it is not easy at once to determine whether may means "can" or "is destined," "must," "ought." Hence we are prepared for the transition which is illustrated thus by Bacon:1

For what he may do is of two kinds, what he may do as just and what he may do as possible.

1 Quoted from Todd's "Johnson."

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