Thursday, January 11, 2007

Tanks a Lot

Q. I heard the phrase “in the tank” used in a news report the other day. From the context, I could tell that it meant something like beholden to. Can you trace its origin?
Ann/Mancelona, MI

A. In India, tankh or tanki (depending on the dialect) meant a pool, lake, or artificial reservoir. Ultimately, in English, it came to mean a swimming pool, which accounts for tank suit and tank top.

In the sense that Ann reported (beholden to), the phrase comes from the sport of boxing, though in a roundabout way. “To go in the tank” is to deliberately lose a fight. That image was suggested by the phrase “to take a dive.” There is secret collusion in the arrangement--between managers, fighters, perhaps even the referee--so there is a definite pejorative slant. It also accounts for the “in league with” aspect, which also appears in the idiom to be in bed with someone.

In a famous 60 Minutes interview with Dan Rather, President Clinton said, "The mainstream press was in the tank to Starr until the Starr report came out...." In other words, in order to get a story, the press kowtowed to the special prosecutor.

Here’s another example from a Brooklyn blog: “Is the Daily News in the tank when it comes to the Atlantic Yards Project? The Daily News, owned by real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman, deserves scrutiny when it comes to the proposed $4 billion Atlantic Yards project, the largest ever in Brooklyn, to build a basketball arena plus at least 16 high-rise buildings. Let's acknowledge that the newspaper has the right to run numerous masthead editorials cheerleading for the Atlantic Yards project. Still, the rate of such editorials far outpaced any other daily.”

In financial jargon, “in the tank” means a poor market performance by a stock, a fund, a particular sector, etc. It’s used to show that things are plummeting in value; they’re going south, to use another idiom. The tank reference is to a toilet tank; it’s synonymous with “in the toilet” or “down the drain.” From the Los Angeles Business Journal: "The largest revenue generator ($384 million in 2005) is Cort Furniture Rental Services, which Wesco acquired in 2000--though the purchase got off to a bad start. In what Charles Munger admits was a case of unforeseen bad timing, Colt went in the tank within months of that purchase. The dot-corn bust and the economic fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hit the commercial furniture rental business hard as companies downsized."

In sports jargon, it means that no energy is left, a reference to an empty gas tank in a car. From the Corvallis Gazette-Times: “A lot of guys didn’t have a lot left in the tank after the UCLA game (on Thursday). Leading up to UCLA there was tremendous energy in practice. A lot of guys left so much on the court they were not able to recover.”

In police jargon, “in the tank” means in a common jail cell, as a drunk tank. The SF Bay Area Independent Media Center, May 18, 2004, reported this: “The City of Fresno is setting up an outdoor drunk tank which is perhaps the only one of its kind in this country. The outdoor drunk tank will be operated by The Rescue Mission, under an overpass on G street in downtown Fresno. Temperatures get up to 110 degrees in the summer and down to 28 degrees in the winter. The director of the Rescue Mission, Larry Arce says that he believes the people brought into the drunk tank his organization will run are in need of spiritual guidance to resolve their problems.”

SIDEBAR: Listen to some cuts from Drunk Tank, a punk band in Den Haag, Netherlands.

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