Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

“In the Tank”

February 28th, 2008 · 26 Comments

Anyone out there happen to know the etymology of the expression “to be in the tank for”? As in “Fox is totally in the tank for Bush,” or “the friendly coverage suggests a lot of reporters are in the tank for Obama”? It’s apparently a sufficiently wonky (or recently minted?) expression that the usual online sources don’t give any explanation.

I’m especially curious because it seems like there are a huge number of possibilities, though of varying plausibility. “In the [fish] tank” as in “like a domesticated pet”? “In the [Abrams] tank” as in “going to battle for”? “In the [gas] tank” as in “acting as fuel for”? “In the [drunk] tank” as in “besotted with”? “In the [septic] tank” as in “prepared to get dirty on behalf of”? Or something else I haven’t thought of? Presumably I could just ping some veteran journo acquaintance and get a definitive answer, but in a way I’m as curious about how people have been interpreting it—or whether it’s a dead metaphor with no concrete image associated—as I am in what the right answer is.

Addendum: Commenter Lex suggests another possibility: “tank” as in “to tank a fight.” I see from includes the locution “in the Tank” for boxers who would deliberately “tank” or throw a match. Dictionary.com gives us:

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.

So the derivation here—and this makes a whole lot of sense—is from the idea of being complicit in a rigged contest, of covertly helping your supposed opponent (or, in the journalist’s case, subject). Of course, that leaves the further question of where that expression came from, but my time is more bounded than my curiosity.

Belated Update: See this new post.

Tags: Language and Literature



26 responses so far ↓

  • 1 lex gibson // Feb 28, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Two thoughts:
    Boxer deliberately giving up a fight (this is probably correct)

    Or think lobster tank instead of fish tank (this is probably not correct, but it’s more amusing).

  • 2 Ricky // Feb 28, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Etymologically I think lex is right with the first one. “To throw a fight.”

    But everyone I’ve ever heard uses it as in your fourth definition.

  • 3 David // Feb 28, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    From the OED:

    “4. U.S. slang. A cell in a police station, spec. one in which several prisoners (esp. drunks) are held.

    1912 D. LOWRIE My Life in Prison iii. 30, I glanced at the number on the cell door. It was..34 Tank. 1933 ‘J. SPENSER’ Limey xvii. 256 In our tank..there were three Chicago gangsters waiting to be returned to that city. 1947 A. R. BOSWORTH San Francisco Murders 264 The day a police reporter had to pick him out of the collection in the drunk tank. 1951 Life 8 Jan. 24 (caption) Still relatively blissful but due for an unhappy awakening, some of the 1,200 Angelenos charged with drunkenness sleep it off in the tank. 1964 WODEHOUSE Frozen Assets iii. 50 It gets boring after a while being thrown into the tank, always with that nervous feeling that this time the old man won’t come through with the necessary bail. 1981 L. DEIGHTON XPD xxv. 210 And then tossed into the drunk tank like a common criminal.”

  • 4 David // Feb 28, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    From Websters:

    “Etymology: Portuguese tanque, alteration of estanque, from estancar to stanch, perhaps from Vulgar Latin *stanticare

  • 5 David // Feb 28, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    To summarize:

    He got into a fight, after getting drunk, and was thrown into a prison cell.

    But I’m going to defend him anyway.


  • 6 sara // Feb 29, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    “In the [septic] tank” as in “prepared to get dirty on behalf of”?

    Wouldn’t a better characterization of “in the [septic] tank for” be “full of shit on behalf of”?

  • 7 Seth // Feb 29, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    I think your answer for why a thrown fight is considered “in the tank” is located directly above the entry for “in the tank” in the sports writer’s handbook. An easy fight may be “in the bag,” but a thrown fight? Well, that’s in an even sturdier, more reliable receptacle. It’s in the tank.

  • 8 carsick // Feb 29, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    When a stock “tanks” it goes down. Before modern municipal water systems, when rainwater flows down a gutter, it goes into a rain bucket, or “tank”. A fighter intentionally “goes down”, he “tanks”.
    The tank is the destination of a flow but it is not necessarily the only destination. Rainwater also ends up in the yard or as a puddle in the street. So someone being “in the tank” for Obama, say, means he is in Obama’s tank and not somewhere else.
    So my guess is, the phrase comes from a rainwater collection usage back in the day.

  • 9 Seth // Feb 29, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    PS: This is all pretty obviously bookie/mobster slang, as well. “Don’t worry, buddy, you can lay down your whole paycheck on this one. The fighters are in the tank for us.”

  • 10 carsick // Feb 29, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Maybe a better way to say that is:
    If it is raining, the water may end up anywhere. But if it is only raining over my house, that water is as good as being “in the tank.”
    So the assumption is a journalist, or anyone really, is the rain without a predetermined destination (“Let the facts lead where they may”)unless something else is determining his destination, then the journalist is “in the tank.”

  • 11 Abby // Feb 29, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    In the sense of “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.”
    Michael Sheehan

  • 12 ACLS // Feb 29, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    Obviously this is a reference to MMORPGs, in which one character has the job of drawing enemy attention while other characters support him and pick off enemies. This character is called a “tank” (obviously named from the Abrams tank) and it suggests that, for instance, Fox News is drawing the attention of the dragon while George Bush renews its buffs and Dick Cheney fires his shotgun at Fox News from afar.

  • 13 Robert Waldmann // Feb 29, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    And what is the etymology of “dead metaphor” ?

    I think, when you check here
    you will find that you meant to write “dying metaphor.” That is, I believe the phrases come from “Politics and the English Language,” where “in the tank” would be denounced as a metaphor without an associated image which has not yet reverted to being like an ordinary word (now that I’m being a parody of nit-picking I should underline my absurdity by noting that Orwell seems to have miscounted the number of words in “Iron resolution.”

    “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.”

  • 14 Jim // Mar 7, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    I’ve always thought “in the tank” had an oral sex etymology as “in a covered barrell with hole(s) in the side(s).” One person (male?) gets in the barrel and other guy(s) utilize the holes.

    Never observed, employed or labored in such a device (if it exists), but years ago it was a deeply disparaging characterization of a fellow, and suggested he has or would get in such a tank voluntarily — or take his turn doing so.

    Many richly sexual words have taken on socially accepted usage. “Suck” is a supreme example of one such change. Once it suggested the disparaged fellow engaged in homosexual oral sex. Now it’s connation is a nonspecific disparagement. One could “suck” for a number of reasons none having anything to do with sucking.

    In the tank, as in “shooting fish in a barrell,” would have an exact opposite connotation. In the tank meaning “failing, dropping, losing, etc.” lacks the requisite affinity or usefulness suggested by the expression. Members of an opposition are not described as getting in the tank.

    On the other hand, “getting in the tank” clearly is meant to be disparaging, and does not suggest the formation of an ethical alliance

    Similarly, the expression “f-you” has lost, through the years, its promise, too. Now it means some nonspecific curse on the other, and not a prayer that one “burn his years in sex.” Not a particularly noxious occupation that unless, again, a homosexual laison is implied which, I always thought, condemned the speaker equally.

  • 15 Hang5 // Mar 22, 2008 at 11:33 am

    I always thought it meant to be the clown in a dunk tank for a charity or cause you believe in. Happy to sit up there and goad people, issue opinions and ocassionally even take a splash or an errant hit for the ol’ gipper. Ready basically to do anything you can to help make sure they are successful. Even if it means you have to go in the tank.

  • 16 Terry // May 7, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Could it be related to journalists embedded , ie. in the tank, with US troops during the Gulf war?

  • 17 Mariana // Aug 22, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    in the tank means that someone or many people is enthralled with someone or something. nowadays used in politics

  • 18 Zen Wizard // Sep 2, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    I came to this page trying to find out myself.

    I like the boxer story the best; it is the most plausible–willing to go to jail for a gangster has merits, also.

    The phrase seems to be of ancient origin–where is that William Safire when you need him?

  • 19 Marty // Sep 14, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    This phrase has gained prevalence only recently, it seems, and often in the context of speaking about bias in the media, as in “MSNBC is totally in the tank for Obama.” So I’ve always thought that the etymology behind its current usage has to do with all those “embedded” reporters during the Iraq War who essentially abdicated their journalistic responsibilities and ended up being cheerleaders for the military forces they were riding around with, that is, in the tank with them.

  • 20 m // Sep 23, 2008 at 1:45 pm


    A tank was the 19th-century term for what we now call a swimming pool; the metaphor evoked a picture of diving to the ring’s canvas-covered floor — as if into a pool — to feign loss of consciousness. “By extension,” Dickson reports, “when a fighter or anything else (including a stock) takes a nose dive he or she has tanked.”

  • 21 mm // Oct 3, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    “In the Tank” is a made up saying of recent origin….

    Whoever started this, meant to say, “in the bag”, but made a mistake and then was copied by all the other pundits that use each other sayings….

  • 22 grant // Oct 7, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    I’m sure this has to do with Dukakis driving the tank during his campaign. The geeky overreach for public opinion.

  • 23 BLINDLIGHT // Oct 16, 2008 at 5:47 am

    The expression “In the Tank” has come to mean, in a coloquial sense, lack of objectivity, subjective thinking etc, in this context the comment of the gentleman regard throwing drunk in the tank is on the mark..i.e. egocentrics are usually drunk on themselves.

  • 24 DrThunderer // Nov 4, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I always assumed it was related to the phrase “swimming with the sharks.”

    “He’s in the tank for Obama, he’s swimming with the sharks.”

  • 25 EscMac // Nov 14, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    In the tank is slang and it is in association with the phrase – the movie tanked at the box office. It means to throw a fight or in this case of the Liberal media NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, AP, NewYorkTimes, LATimes, most Universities, teachers unions, most other unions, most of the countries courts, Hollywood etc. etc. etc. were in the Tank for BHO, they were willing to throw the election for an unknown and untested candidate.

  • 26 Larry // Mar 11, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    “In the tank?”