March 6, 2008

"In the tank."

I keep wanting to use this expression I hear all the time these days, but I always pick some other phrase, because I don't know what the "tank" is. Are we talking about something in a car or some sort of aquarium or what? I don't like to use meaningless yet concrete imagery. What do you picture when you hear that someone is "in the tank for Obama"?

Searching for a clue, I see that Julian Sanchez was fishing around the other day for an answer. He doesn't seem to get anywhere but he provokes one commenter to remind us of what George Orwell wrote about "dying metaphors" in "Politics and the English Language":
DYING METAPHORS. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.
I've deeply internalized Orwell's advice. (I've read the old essay many times.) When I was writing the first sentence of this post, for "I always pick some other phrase," my first thought was "I always hold my tongue," and I rejected that phrase out of hand immediately.

Yet I do think "in the tank" sound spiffy. I like it. But I'm never going to use it until I know what the tank is.

ADDED: Some people seem to think I don't understand what "in the tank" means, and many think they've solved my problem by saying that "tanking" is a boxing term connected to "taking a dive." But what I want is a concrete image for the "tank" that we are talking about. I understand that a boxer taking a fall very eagerly can be pictured as "diving" the way you would dive into a pool or a tank of some sort. So if we say someone is "in the tank" as opposed to "tanking," do we mean that he has so eagerly gone for someone that he's not only taking a dive, he has already dived, so he's "in the tank"? In that case, it seems to be a sort of large clear-sided aquarium of the sort a circus might use for a stunt or a magician might vow to remain submerged in for a week. So if you think someone is "in the tank for Obama," picture a tank like that.

SO: Is The Tank in the tank?


John Lynch said...

I always took it to mean the carnival dunking tank (throw a baseball at the disk, the person goes in the tank.) Being in the tank would evoke someone signed up, commited, and willing to take shots (and get dunked) on behalf of the charitable (or other) cause.

former law student said...

Ask Saturday Night Live. Apparently they originated the phrase "in the tank for Obama" in a skit.

George said...

Definitely a boxing term....possibly referring to the tank of a the crapper...

rhhardin said...

Swimming pool, go into it for.

Like take a dive.

Simon said...

Politics and the English Language is exceptionally useful as a guide to writing, with one primary exception. It seems to me that Orwell futhered (if not kickstarted) one of the most lamentable and pretentious of modern trends, the "war on latin," wherein latin and other traditional terminology are ostentatiously ousted from the lexicon, replaced by terms alternately less elegant or less efficient. (To my mind, good writing is elegant and efficient, and if forced to choose between being one or the other in a given passage, prefers elegance over concision.) Thus, ex ante becomes "before the fact"; ab initio becomes "from the outset"; en banc becomes "before the full court," "sui generis" becomes "in a class of its own," in Indiana's highest court one applies not for a writ of "certiorari" but of "transfer," and one scarcely dares inquire what modernist monstrosities will in due course be conjured up to inquire into a supposed expert's bona fides or to add caveats to their testimony. My spies in England tell me that lawyers and judges there are living under virtual sharia law, so successful have been Ingsoc's purveyors of Newspeak in demanding that tradition and elegance give way to some rationalist's idea of what good modernist writing should look like. This is one of the very few things I would fault in Easterbrook's otherwise compelling style, and it's just about the only thing I'd fault in Orwell's essay.

rcocean said...

At first,I was tearing my hair out trying to write a response, and I thought I'd reached a dead end. But I put my nose to the grindstone, remembered to give 110 percent, and Swung for the fences. I hope I hit a home run. But if not; that which does not kills me makes me stronger.

TMink said...

I used the term "like Jeckyl and Hyde" in a session with a teenage boy the other day and he had KNOW idea what I was referring to.

Perhaps I should have said "like Simon and Randy."

As for in the tank, I consulted and found the following:

1. in the tank - Broken, hopeless, ruined. Synonyms: screwed up or fucked up.

2. in the tank

Someone who is extremely hung over, tired, confused, or ill but having to function either at a job or some other event where the person must be on top of their game.

Hope this helps.


TMink said...

Didn't get enough sleep last night, the boy had NO idea, not KNOW idea.



peter hoh said...

Maybe Woody Allen could help. I remember an old essay of his in which he explained phrases such as "dressed to beat the band."

Paul Zrimsek said...

Did you really think that in an age of illegal NSA wiretapping you could keep your support for Obama, and the hope and change he represents, hidden from the evil Rethuglican attack machine? Well, now you're treading water and glancing fearfully at the sea bass with frickin' laser beams that are closing in on you.

Pogo said...

In Lemony Snicket's books on A Series of Unfortunate Events, the author has many funny metaphors for the stealing. Some are ludicrous, others patently bizarre.

"Ending on the right foot. And strike a Fosse."
"I love taxicabs. They're a metaphor for relationships — one of you doesn't speak English."
"For Beatrice-
Summer without you is as cold as winter.
Winter without you is even colder."
"The expression "quiet as mice" is a puzzling one, because mice can often be very noisy, so people who are being quiet as mice may in fact be squeaking and scrambling around."

Montagne Mointaigne said...

Yeah, the press is in the tank for Obama. Great meme. Except...

NAFTA-Gate was a setup and the press is giving Clinton a pass on it.

Kirby Olson said...

I googled the Urban slang dictionary, and it said septic tank. But then tanked also means drunk. Or to fail badly at something (orig. British slang). But I think the image you are looking for is septic tank, or is it spelled sceptic tank? Septic tank: a tank in which the solid matter of continuously flowing sewage is disintegrated by bacteria (Webster's), and here's some more from Urban slang dictionary:

Any person, place, thing, or idea that causes much doubt, questioning, and/or disagreement among varied groups of like-minded people.

"Sceptic" rhymes with "septic," as in "septic tank."

George W. Bush is a complete fucking sceptic tank.

The entire Christian religion is but one humongous sceptic tank.

joe said...

"In the tank" comes from boxing - to take a dive - to dive into a tank.

Middle Class Guy said...

Simon said...
It seems to me that Orwell futhered (if not kickstarted) one of the most lamentable and pretentious of modern trends, the "war on latin,"

I do not believe that Latin is even taught in schools anymore. Spanish is the language du jour.

When I was in High School, everyone had to take two years of Latin before they could take any other language.

I do see that German is making a comeback in high schools today, as well as Chinese and French.

MadisonMan said...

Latin is taught at West High School here in Madison.

P. Rich said...


Used as the verb "to tank", usually implies failure or collapse, e.g. The project "tanked".

As a noun, implies a space separate from or cut off from the outside world, e.g. He "went into the tank" or He's "in the tank" would imply a state of deep concentration while oblivious to the surroundings. I suspect the term "think tank" loosely evolved from the latter usage. Or not.

Donna B. said...

I always thought "tanked" or "in the tank" meant drunk. As a metaphor, one drunk, or high, on Obamania would be "in the tank" for Obama, emotionally.

Basically, lacking rationality.

Impartial observer said...

I keep wanting to use this expression I hear all the time these days, but I always pick some other phrase, because I don't know what the "tank" is.

You don't know what cruel neutrality is and you're using that term. Why so shy here?

Everyone knows there isn't a chance in hell you'd ever vote for Obama.

John A said...

I like any of these -

septic tank
carnival dunking tank (as John Lynch noted above)

Not so fond of "tanked" as guzzle, imbibe, etc.

Dark horse - ullage: the amount by which a container falls short of being full.

Dean Esmay said...

The one that continually fascinates me is "the whole nine yards." Everybody, including me, uses it regularly. Nobody, including me, can do more than conjecture vaguely as to what exactly it means. It is not particularly concise ("every bit of it" and several alternatives are more concise), not particularly visually evocative, isn't even Latin. That doesn't stop me from using it, but it's amusing isn't it?

Roger said...

Dean: the whole nine yards, as I have heard it comes from B-17 machine gunners in WWII. Their ammunition belts were 9 yards long, and the way to tell if they had been in major combat was if they had fired the whole nine yards. Another B-17 story has to do with the expression "balls to the wall," which refers to the balls on top of the throttles and wall refers to firewall. Thus, balls to the wall meant full throttle.

True? I have no idea. Narrative sounds good, so possibly fake but accurate.

Bruce said...

P. Rich says: "He's "in the tank" would imply a state of deep concentration while oblivious to the surroundings".

This is very much the usage I'm familiar with. You hear it at the poker table. You make a large raise and the other player sits and thinks for *long* while, in deep concentration and fairly oblivious to whats going on around him. He's in his own seperate space. "I pushed, and he goes in the tank for 3 mins before laying it down".

Dean Esmay: Possibly apocryphal, but I heard that World War II anti-aircraft machine guns belts were 9 yards long. If you unloaded an entire belt of ammo at an enemy plane, you were giving him the whole 9 yards.

Kirk Parker said...


As items of technical legal terminology, sure. But for ordinary prose, I'm pretty much with Orwell (and Tolkein, who I think might have been on that bandwagon earlier than Orwell.)


Sorry, but nobody really cares about all that. The important question is: Did You Play Your Own Game? :-)

Roger said...

Oops--in addition to always failing to proofread before posting, I also fail to google before posting. According to a couple of websites, the term the whole nine yards seems to be military in origin but not in common usage until after 1964. Nor, as one site note, were ammo belts nine yards long. Still, that version has panache. What are a few facts to interfere with a good narrative. As I said in my 1:35: Fake but accurate.

Simon said...

Middle Class Guy said...
"I do not believe that Latin is even taught in schools anymore. Spanish is the language du jour. When I was in High School, everyone had to take two years of Latin before they could take any other language."

When I was in high school, my school - Sir Thomas Rich's Grammar, founded anno domine 1666 - was one of the very last schools that was still teaching Latin to all entrants, for at least two years, parallel with French and German. The problem was that it's quite difficult, and it was simply not explained (at least, in terms that, you know, twelve year old kids could grasp) why one might want to learn latin. To my subsequent regret, I'm afraid to say I dropped it like a hot rock at the first possible opportunity. The first clue that this was a strategic blunder had nothing to do with the majesty of the law, by the way: I was rather fond of a Catholic woman in college, and it turned out she was all-but fluent in latin. In any event, the older you get, the harder it is to learn such things, the brain is very supple at that age, and I wish I'd paid more attention.

(Part of the problem may be that children are not taught their own language in the terminology in which they're taught foreign languages, which imposes an additional hurdle.)

Still, with that said, the simple reality is that not every kid is going to go on to a career in what might be considered the intellectual arts, and for the people who are going to spend their lives in blue-collar and quasi blue-collar jobs, Spanish or Chinese is a better time investment. In point of fact, a lot of what's on the curriculum these days is at best superfluous - there are several classes that my son's taking that are, quite frankly, a waste of his time, and not only could that time be better-invested, but it's indefensible having them sit in classes like "technology" (and I use the term very loosely) when most of them have at best a very, very loose grasp of American history.

Simon said...

Kirk Parker said...
"Simon, as items of technical legal terminology, sure. But for ordinary prose, I'm pretty much with Orwell (and Tolkein, who I think might have been on that bandwagon earlier than Orwell.)"

I disagree, if mildly. I'll agree that one is far less frequently going to run into well-established latin phrases in non-specialist use (with certain caveats - ho ho) than in law, medicine, etc., and I'm not saying that one should consciously reach out to find a latin equivalent (although again, there are exceptions to that rule). But I do say that one shouldn't hesitate to use latin where latin has been traditionally used - it's loony, it seems to me, to try to find some inelegant and inefficient equivalent of pars pro toto, for example, because you're afraid of sending the audience scuttling for a dictionary.

Quite aside from what we are losing in nuance, elegance and tradition, which would be reason enough to deep-six the project, to my mind, the biggest problem with the War on Latin is precisely that it is conscious. We should be skeptical of entities claiming the authority to steward the English language. The last thing the English language needs is a de facto Académie française. If a latin (or any other) term is genuinely vestigial, and no longer has any use, it will fall into disuse of its own accord, without any need for some kind of disapprobation or directive. The mere persistence of the term is a strong prima facie case for its utility. That these changes are often consciously urged (indeed, willed) underlines their invalidity, and that they are in many cases inefficient reveals the instinct to control and natural hostility to anything that is traditional, anything that merely is (to borrow from Oakeshott) endemic to the rationalist left.

I don't pine for the days where latin was a lot more prevalent, but I do think it has a natural place in written (and, to an extent, even spoken) English.

Cedarford said...

Etymology is fun. A hobby of mine.

They lead us into the past and a seemingly minor event or place in time that becomes a common source of culture purely through power of words that last while men and their eras the words were hatched in don't. Finding the meaning of a word or phrase is a sometimes enjoyable journey to those bygone times..

No one knows who exactly 1st came up with "in the tank" but it was popularized in the heyday of radio when catchy phrases proliferated. And it, as an allusion to gambling fixing or a loss of objectovity developed in parallel with the other meaning of stocks tanking or a person's health having tanked as a polite way of saying they ended up in the toilet.

To go back to the origin, you have to go to India, where the Moguls used water from the irrigation pipes from the Himalaya to build reserviors of water that were not just for meeting religious requirements of sanitation, but were very refreshing in the insane hot summers of northern central India. They were called "tankhs" in the Gujarat language.

The Brits found the reserviors a godsend, and by the mid-19th century had brought back the bathing tankh idea to Britain and to other nasty hot places of the Empire, notably Australia and Africa. As it was the Victorian Era, the Tankh Suit was invented. Later to just be tank suit and match all the other artifacts now called tanks.

America lagged behind, but we got our tankhs in time when they were renamed "swimming pools" though we used tank quite a bit for smaller vessels - like the circus diving tank where high risk divers and horses plummeted down 30-60 feet to diving tanks. (In its heyday from 1905 starting at Hippodrome shows to the 1st years of the Depression, nothing drew in the rubes to a small cheap circus or carnival to spend their money like the diving shows.)

At the same rough period of time, match fixing in sports was notorious, none more so than in the 2nd most popular sport of the time, and #2 gambling sport - boxing. Even before radio, a person pretending to be knocked out or be badly hurt would dive to the mat.

But radio and sportswriters added the suspense of speculation - will a fighter take a dive?? - into speculation that the person was not a possible diver, but already IN the diving tank, figuratively.

"In the tank" actually started as "going in the diving tank" then got shortened.

Outside boxing, at the same time, lawn tennis, horseracing & betting on those matches was wildly popular in the European Empires, and boxing phrases swiftly migrated out from the blood sports to those other sports. Horse racing deveoped their own terminology for words that best captured tampering with a horse or jockey's performance - but "tanking" and "in the tank" really stuck in the sport of tennis, notably in Australia Which was dominant just as tennis went professional, found TV and became one of the top 5 global sports.

And reintroduced being "in the tank" to Americans, who then applied it to anyone that was purportedly objective like a judge, or journalist, or referee, or athlete who actually harbored a secret bias that destroyed objectivity and made their objectivity or obligation to fair play into a fraud.

[As an aside, the diving horses, before the ASPCA put them out of business, were noted in show business as the big lure of small circus shows - unlike a person, they sprayed water out of the diving tank everywhere when they hit with a big noise, and delighted the wetted-down crowd, especially the kids and men happy to be in on an early version of the wet t-shirt contest. Thus the positive phrase "making a big splash" came into being.]

It took until post-WWI for the T-shirt (tank shirt) to reach America from Europeans that had adopted the cotton undergarments for men instead of woolens. And for the revealing chick tank top to be invented in 1968. Both are derivative of the tank suit and eventually derivative of the Gujarati word.

ricpic said...

If the meaning of I'm in the tank for Obama is, I'm committed to Obama, but the metaphor feels uncomfortable, how about, I'm in the bag for Obama?

Chip Ahoy said...

All such questions can best be answered at the NYT crossword forum, solvers there are ever eager to demonstrate their language prowess.

Interested in knowing what the country's top crossword puzzle constructors and solvers look like? Fashion plates, all, and a concern to geriodontists everywhere. *ducks* Slide show with captions uploaded to photobucket by Nancy Shack.

Of special interest is Tyler Hinman, competition winner. Immigrant from Russia, who published first crossword in NYT at age fifteen.

Chip Ahoy said...

Correction: I recall Tyler saying his goal was to publish in NYT before he turned 15.

Tank, I believe, refers to the drunk tank, not the dunk tank. It means washed up, refers to a fallen down drunk.

Michael_H said...

I've read the whole magilla and still don't know conclusively what "in the tank" means (other than actually being in, you know, in a tank).

Well, bob's your uncle then.

Beth said...

I used the term "like Jeckyl and Hyde" in a session with a teenage boy the other day and he had [no] idea what I was referring to.

Trey, I had to scale back my cultural references in my freshman comp classes about five years ago when I realized I'd hit that point where there was no overlap between my generation and the one I was teaching. I've since adjusted that to eliminating pop culture references particular to my age, but I'm sticking to my guns on literary and historical references. I decided I wouldn't lower that bar, and that building some common cultural history is part of acquiring a liberal arts degree. Or at least the ability to recognize an allusion and look it up in wikipedia -- if that's the best they can do, I'll take it.

The Drill SGT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Drill SGT said...

Roger was too modest. He and I are both professioanl "tankers" as in as (at least my case) graduates of the Armor Officer's Basic and Advanced Courses at Ft Knox. With that professional background, the let's have the envelopes please:

1. The Whole 9 yards... a full load of concrete from a mixer truck is 9 cubic yards. you get a price break if you order the "whole 9 yards"

2. In the tank = the drunk tank. also see: tanked up, same meaning

as for the picture? that is a dummy, sitting/standing in the commander's hatch of an M1 tank, behind an M240 pintal mounted 7.62 mm machine gun, wearing a CVC (combat vehicle crewman's) helmet looking like the idiot he was.

John Burgess said...

Simon: British public (i.e., private') schools still require Latin in the elementary grades. And my son's UK high school (founded 1440) also required it.

Greek, however, has become optional and is really only taken by the serious wonks--"King's Scholars"--or people who want to study classical Greek Literature as an academic subject.

The Drill SGT said...

correction: Loader's hatch. I looked at the video

Kirby Olson said...

When the Brits first constructed military tanks they told the people building them that they were water tanks. I was told this by a retired Army captain in a class today.

Is this true?

I think I am never going to use this word. It has too much wobbliness.

The Drill SGT said...

yep, water tanks was the disinformation

JackDRipper said...

It's better to be"on the tank"than "in the tank".

Masterful, in control, out in the open, unafraid to be exposed, proudly standing as a challenge to any other men...........

JackDRipper said...

........but not "on the take".

In the tank, in the pocket of, in cahoots with, in bed with.

On time, on point, on message, on principle.

Generally to be "in" is to be enveloped and submissive, almost fetal.

To be "on" is more dominant and coordinated.

If little Mike D. had been on the tank doing a Yul Brynner like pose it would have had a totally different impact.

amba said...

My husband the ex-boxer used it (and I suppose that supports the meaning "to take a dive") but in such a way that I always had the impression it was an obscenity, like Monica was in the tank for Bill.

Roger said...

Drill: Armor officer basic, Oct-Dec 1967; Armor Officer Advanced, Sept 1970-June 1971. (My basic training unit in 1961 was C troop, 3d Squadron, 7th Cav, 2d ID, Sand Hill, Ft Benning GA. Garry Owen! Started out in M41s, was in M48s in Viet Nam, and M60s beyond that. Never was in the Abrams--the finest tank ever made. :(

AST said...

Don't try to analyze language with the logic you apply to law. Too often language changes in a zigzag manner without regard to the origins of a phrase or trope. There are lots of examples. Atonement was originally at-one-ment. When taking a dive originated it meant diving into the canvas, but diving evoked a pool of water, i.e. a tank.

Consider also "put up your dukes."

dave said...

I was wondering the same thing...but as with any slang there can be multiple meanings converging. Here's one definition, as in "to tank a fight"

go in the tank, Boxing Slang. to go through the motions of a match but deliberately lose because of an illicit prearrangement or fix; throw a fight.

bobby said...

"Spanish is the language du jour."

Obviously, French is the language du jour. If it was Spanish, we'd have to call it the language del dia.