Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.


Ask a Question!

Puzzled by Posh?
Confounded by Cattycorner?
Baffled by Balderdash?
Flummoxed by Flabbergast?
Perplexed by Pandemonium?
Nonplussed by... Nonplussed?
Annoyed by Alliteration?

Don't be shy!
Send in your question!




Alphabetical Index
of Columns January 2007 to present.


Archives 2006 – present

Old Archives

Columns from 1995 to 2006 are slowly being added to the above archives. For the moment, they can best be found by using the Search box at the top of this column.


If you would like to be notified when each monthly update is posted here, sign up for our free email notification list.






All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

Any typos found are yours to keep.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


TWD RSS feeds


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”).


Save room for desserts.

Dear Word Detective:  In the sentence “The player had been on the field just eight minutes when he opened the scoring,” what word type would “just” fall under and why is it used? — Tom.

Good question. “Just” is a Swiss Army knife word. Consider how any times a day we use the word “just” in senses ranging from asking a caller to wait “just a minute” while we stop the dog from climbing into the refrigerator, to explaining that we mailed the check “just yesterday,” to pronouncing the porridge “just right.” And that’s not even counting the obnoxious ads exhorting us to “Just Do It.” Despite what you’ve heard about “the sleep of the just,” “just” never sleeps, and when it paces the room muttering to itself, we may beg, “Just leave us alone,” but it won’t. Is this making anyone else feel slightly queasy?

Never mind. Must have been the tuna omelet. Anyway, the “just” in your example of “just eight minutes” is an adverb, as is “just” in all of the uses I cited above except “sleep of the just,” in which it is an adjective (technically an “adjectival noun,” an adjective acting as a noun, as in “the poor” or “the meek”). In your example phrase “just eight minutes,” the word “just” is being used to mean “only” or “no more than.”

The adverbial “just” first appeared in English right around 1400, derived from the adjective “just,” which had entered English earlier in the 14th century. The root of “just” was the Latin “jus,” meaning “right or law” (which also underlies “justice” and is related to “jury,” “injury,” et al.). This Latin “jus” seems to have originated in religious cults (possibly originally meaning “sacred formulas”) and was separate from the mainstream Latin “lex,” meaning “law.” So it’s not surprising that the early uses of “just” as an adjective in English centered on moral and religious rightness and fidelity. The religious overtones had largely dropped away by Shakespeare’s day (“He was my Friend, faithful, and just to me,” Julius Caesar, 1616), and “just” as an adjective ever since has meant “true, fair, proper, reasonable and right” in various secular  senses.

“Just” as an adverb followed this semantic trail, initially meaning “precisely, properly, appropriately,” as we use it today in such phrases as “just as” (exactly as), “just so” (in precisely this manner or fashion). Somewhat more loosely, we use “just as” to denote the extent or degree of something (“I’ll be your friend just as long as you lend me money”). “Just” can also indicate likeness or being appropriate (“You seem to be just the thing for him,” 1809), or denote a specific amount or quantity (“It is just a fortnight since Mr. Gladstone embarked,” 1883). “Just” is also used to introduce an implied question (“One wonders just how biased a view we develop of the human ecology of tropical Africa,” 1974) or statement of fact (“Just how many bushels a man will place on an acre depends upon both his means and his judgment,” 1884). In both those sentences “just” could be replaced by “exactly” or “precisely.”

One of the uses of “just” that seems to have drifted furthest from its original meaning is “just” used in matters of time to mean “almost at that point; not long before or after” (“The apostle had just been speaking of Jesus Christ,” 1758) or “in a moment, very soon” (“Presently the Captain reply’d, Tell his Excellency, I am just a coming,” 1719). It can also mean “barely,” “merely” or “no more than” (“Everard had but just time to bid Wildrake hold the horses,” 1826).  “Just” is also used as an emphatic modifier meaning “absolutely,” as in “Bob’s arrest for mopery was just the final straw.” In the advertising slogan “Just Do It,” the “just” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes in its exhaustive entry on the word, being “used to extenuate the action expressed by a verb, and so to represent it as a small thing” (“Mother! Do just get in with me for a few minutes till the train starts,” 1898) or, in this case, simply a matter of initiative and discipline.

Many of these sub-senses of “just” overlap, obviously, and trying to finely parse the differences between the senses is asking for a fierce headache. But to say a player has been on the field for “just eight minutes” clearly invokes sense Five of the OED definition: “No more than; only, merely; barely.” That’s still in the ballpark with the original sense of “just” meaning “exactly,” but in this sense, with its overtones of “Gimme a break, it’s only been eight minutes,” it’s become an adverb with attitude.

Borrow / Lend

Gopher broke, can I borrow yours?

Dear Word Detective:  As a youngster in Minneapolis, I used to hear my classmates use “borrow” to mean “lend,” as in “I borrowed him five bucks and he hasn’t paid me back.” I had always written this off as the usage of children, but within the last two or three years I have heard it so used by adults on the “Judge Judy” program. And the curious thing is (cue the “Twilight Zone” music), whenever I have been able to note the origins of said persons, they have always been from Minnesota. Is this actually a gopherism that I missed out on by moving away before the age of 25? — Charles Anderson.

Judge Judy. That is all. Actually, I just realized that not only have I never watched Judge Judy, but I’ve been confusing her with Dr. Laura, whom I have also never watched (possibly because, as Wikipedia just pointed out, she’s a radio host). I also tend to confuse Sanjay Gupta with Doctor Oz. I probably just need to sit closer to the TV. Anyway, my impression of Judge Judy and her penitents is wholly based on clicking past her show on my way to the digital sub-channel that shows old sitcoms around here. (Mister Ed rules!) But there seems to be a whole slew of apparently fungible kangaroo court shows on the upper broadcast channels in the afternoon, and I’ve always wondered how people pick a favorite. Maybe they just go with the one their nephew was on.

I’ve never been to Minnesota, but I would have made more of an effort if I’d realized you guys worship gophers. Awesome. Here in Ohio the people call each other Buckeyes, which is a type of tree nut. No comment. People in Ohio say some strange things, but so far I haven’t noticed anything quite on the level of using “borrow” to mean “lend.” Maybe there’s something in those 10,000 lakes.

At first glance, there’s something profoundly disturbing about reversing the meaning of “borrow,” much more jarring than, say, using “literally” as an emphatic modifier of a figurative statement (“I opened the gas bill and literally had a heart attack”). Shakespeare’s advice in Hamlet, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry,” kinda loses its point if you don’t observe the difference between the words.

Then again, this “borrow/lend” business has a history of confusion. The curious thing about the word “borrow” is that it originally meant something close to “lend.” A “borrow” (the now-obsolete noun, from Germanic roots meaning “to protect”) in Old English was a thing given as security or a guarantee, and “to borrow” was to take something of value as security for a loan, as pawnshops do today. The senses reversed early on in English, with the emphasis of “borrow” shifting to the “thing” taken as collateral, and eventually “to borrow” came to mean to take something belonging to someone else with a pledge, not necessarily involving money, that it would be returned in the future.

Elsewhere in the mix, “loan” and “lend” both come from the Old Norse “lan,” which meant “to let have.” Interestingly, as a verb, “to loan” is largely confined to the US; if you’re broke in London you’ll be looking for someone to “lend” you money.

Semantically, “borrow” and “lend” are a matched pair, like “come” and “go,” and “here” and “there,” two sides of the same conceptual coin. Some languages, in fact use one word to mean both actions and let context indicate the meaning (as some languages use one word to mean both “teach” and “learn”). The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) notes that the non-standard use of “borrow” to mean “to lend” is “scattered” across the US, but especially found west of the Great Lakes, i.e., in Gopherland. DARE also notes that this usage is found “especially among young speakers and speakers with [only] grade school educations.” This usage, however, is far from new; the first citation in DARE is from New York State in 1896, and “Will you borry me some sugar?” was noted in Kentucky in 1917.

So using “borrow” to mean “lend” is simply a dialectical variation, strongly centered in Minnesota. I’m sure that even as we speak there are people out there ranting against this deviant usage as a harbinger of the lang-pocalypse and the consequent death of civilization, but I can’t get terribly cranked up about it. It’s not like the government got confused about “borrow” and “lend” and started giving trillions of dollars to big banks.