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shameless pleading


For the memories.

Dear Word Detective: The word “tank” is mentioned so very much in your column, I was surprised to find no origin for it. There are so many uses: a tank-top, an army tank, a gas tank, a tankard, I am sure there are more that I am neglecting. Are all of these tanks related to each other? What is the connection between a tank-top that you wear and your gas tank? — Diana T.

Hey, you’re right. After I read your question, I went and searched my website for instances of the word “tank” in my columns and there are scads. Interestingly, none of them (as far as I could tell, given my short attention span for my own work) referred to the military vehicle type of “tank,” which is odd. When I was a kid I was mildly obsessed with tanks, and my dream was to have my very own M4 Sherman tank, which may have been one reason I got to know the school guidance counselor so well. But when the Zombie Apocalypse hits, you’re all going to realize I was prescient, not nuts. Have fun in your little tin Corollas.

(Hey, I guess it’s never too late. This one is only $325,000.)

“Tank” as a noun has all the senses you mention and several more (“think tank” among them), except that there is no apparent connection between “tank” and “tankard,” meaning a large mug or cup. “Tankard” comes from the Dutch “tanckaert,” from “kantard,” which in turn came from the Latin “cantharus” (a kind of deep cup used in Ancient Greece). “Kantard” became “tanckaert” (and then “tankard”) probably through a weird, but not unprecedented, transposition of letters.

“Tank” is also a bit weird in that it seems to have both Indian and Portuguese roots. In India, the Gujarati “tankh” (possibly from the Sanskrit “tadaga”) means an underground reservoir of water, but the Portuguese “tanque” means “pond” (ultimately from the Latin “stagnum,” pond). Whether the Portuguese influenced the Indian word or vice-versa, “tank” first appeared in English in the 17th century meaning “a cistern or storage place for water.”

Most of the ways we use “tank” today are, at least tangentially, connected to that original meaning of “a container to hold liquid or similar substances.” “Tanks” in that original sense can range from the gas “tank” on your car to the huge “tanks” of natural gas or fuel oil you sometimes see near cities. Scuba divers depend on “tanks” of air, and pet fish depend on their “tanks” of water.

It’s when we use “tank” in figurative senses that the word starts to wander away from that literal “container for liquid” meaning. “Tank tops” are called that because they resemble “tank suits,” close-fitting women’s bathing suits commonly worn in the 1920s in “swimming tanks,” what today we call “swimming pools.” The term “think tank,” today meaning “an organization of purported experts who come up with fancy ways of explaining what everyone already knows,” was originally, in the late 1800s, simply slang for “the human brain,” also known as “the think box.”

The military “tank,” a tracked armored vehicle carrying a heavy gun, got its name in 1916, during the First World War. The term “tank” was adopted as a code word for the vehicles while they were being developed in secret by the British Army, but the name stuck after their public debut on the Western Front, probably because early tanks resembled large metal oil tanks.

When we say that something has “tanked,” meaning “failed miserably,” we’re using a phrase which is several steps removed from any real “tank.” This slang “to tank” started out in the boxing ring, where a crooked fighter who agreed to intentionally lose a match was said to have “taken a dive” (in this case, literally falling to the canvas floor of the ring). Taking off from the “dive” usage, and with “swimming tanks” in mind, people began speaking of fighters “going into the tank” when throwing a fight, or “being in the tank,” i.e., having been bribed to lose.

Sometime in the 1970s, as these “tank” phrases began to be adopted by the general public, they lost their “did it on purpose” meanings and “to tank” came to mean simply “to fail utterly,” with no implication of corruption. But there must have been a few old boxing fans left in the early 1990s, because “to be in the tank for” then reappeared in political jargon, with its original meaning of “in the pay of” or “secretly in favor of or committed to” (“NBC is clearly in the tank for Clinton”).

1 comment to Tank

  • Terry Diggs

    Here in Arkansas where I live, a “pond” is a small body of water, whether naturally occurring or manmade. A usage I’ve only noticed in Texas is to call a naturally-occurring small body of water a “pond,” but a man-made body of water is called a “tank.”

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