What in the Word?! In the ‘tank’
One hundred years ago, Flanders was covered in blood – and mud. At the Battle of Passchendaele (31 July – 6 November, 1917), Allies slogged through a grueling three months and hundreds of thousands of casualties to win control of the area around Ypres, Belgium. Heavy summer rains turned the battlefield into muddy sloughs so deep and thick they mired one of the most formidable technologies introduced during World War I: the tank.
The code word that changed modern warfare
The Allies started developing tracked armoured vehicles to negotiate the notorious trenches of World War I. While the French also had impressive machines in development, the British are credited with first deploying the tank during the Battle of Somme in 1916 thanks to the engineering of Major Walter Gordon Wilson and Sir William Tritton, and the manufacturing of Lincoln’s William Foster and Co. They nicknamed their 1915 prototype Little Willie, a diminutive used of various First World War military equipment meant to disparage German Crown Prince Wilhelm. His father, Kaiser Wilhelm, was mocked by Big Willie, the nickname for a larger 1916 tank model, which went into battle. For its size and debut, Big Willie also answered to Mother, perhaps as in the mother of all tanks.
But why did the British call these new engines of war tanks? In a word: secrecy.
While working names included landship, land cruiser, and caterpillar machine-gun destroyer, the British military needed a codename to conceal their new weapon. In a November 1915 letter, British naval architect Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt wrote: ‘I…propose to refer to the vessel as a “Water Carrier” as a means of disguise’. The machine did resemble a large water vessel, and a codename to this effect would mislead foes about its purpose while in development.
According to British army officer John Frederick Charles Fuller in his 1920 Tanks in the Great War, other early codenames, taking a cue from d’Eyncourt, included cistern and reservoir, but tank, another word for a big water receptacle, prevailed. Fuller writes that the first instance of tank, chosen ‘because it was less clumsy and monosyllabic’, appeared in a 24 December, 1915 recommendation by the Committee of Imperial Defence:
That if and when the Army Council, after inspection of the final experimental land cruiser, decide that such machines shall be entrusted to a small ‘Executive Supply Committee’, which, for secrecy, shall be called the ‘Tank Supply Committee’, and shall come into existence as soon as the decision of the Army Council is made.
An etymological land cruiser
Tank indeed served as a punchy name for the war machine, and we might think it trumpeted some linguistic patriotism for the British, too. A short, consonant-stuffed, single syllable has to come from Anglo-Saxon stock, no? Make, strong, hit, ground, hard: these are sturdy descendants of Old English, and tank would seem to belong among its ranks. But tank actually shows off different qualities of the English language – just how foreign its vocabulary is and just how muddy that vocabulary can get.
The earliest record the Oxford English Dictionary currently enters for tank comes from Englishman Thomas Herbert’s 1634 chronicles of traveling in Africa and Asia: ‘Tancks or couered ponds of water, fild by the beneficiall raines, for the vse and drink of Trauellers’. Herbert’s tanks refer to pools or lakes used in India for irrigation or storing drinking-water, and many etymologists think the term was borrowed directly from Western Indian languages. Gujarati has tankh (‘underground reservoir for water’) and tanki (‘reservoir of water, small well) while Marathi has tanken (‘reservoir of water, tank’) and tanka (‘cistern’), all which might come from their parent tongue, Sanskrit, whose tadaga means ‘lake’ or ‘pool’.
Making things more complicated, though, is the Portuguese tanque, also meaning ‘reservoir’ or ‘pond’, ultimately from the Latin stagnum (‘pool’, source of stagnant and possible origin of staunch). Some think English may have separately borrowed this tanque for its modern use of tank – first attested in John Dryden’s 1690 tragedy, Don Sebastian, King of Portugal, for a ‘container for large quantities of liquid’ – with the earlier, Indian tank reinforcing its sound and sense. Others suppose that the Portuguese tanque actually supplied the Gujarati and Marathi words for ‘reservoir’ when they established colonies there starting in the 16th century.
And further clouding the waters is tankard, first referring to a large tub-like vessel (1310s) and then a large beer mug (1480s). Despite similarities in form and meaning, tankard has no apparent relation to tank; it’s borrowed from the Dutch tanckaert, also a kind of tub and of unknown origin. English has had other, unrelated tanks, too, such as a Middle English term for a ‘wild carrot’ and an Early Modern English dialectical term for a ‘blow’ or ‘knock’, likely related to the Scottish and Irish colloquial tank, or ‘defeat soundly’ in sport.
Falling down and drinking up
Other sports, boxing or tennis, may have given us the verb to tank, or ‘give up’. Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green traces this tank to 1920s boxing jargon, with tanking like ‘taking a dive’ into a swimming pool, or ‘going into the tank’. The OED, meanwhile, takes it back to 1970s tennis slang, later broadening to ‘fall’ or ‘crash’, as especially said of stock prices.
Tank has other slang uses, like to get tanked, or ‘drunk’, evidenced since the 1890s on the analogy of the great volume of drink consumed. Such inebriation might put one in the tank, or ‘jail cell’, where the drunk and disorderly are held.
From Marathi to getting a little too merry, tank is one little word that, like those massive machines of World War I and on, has proven itself to be a powerful, all-terrain vehicle in the English language.