How did "in the tank" come to mean "supportive"?

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Oct. 24 2008 4:58 PM

Explainer Goes in the Tank

An unbiased etymology.

A new study on media coverage of the presidential race suggests "that the press is in the tank for Barack Obama," the Boston Globe reported yesterday. Is a "top medical journal in the tank for Obama?" reads a recent Portfolio headline. John McCain, according to a story in Thursday's Guardian, "didn't even give the press a chance, trashing it on the assumption that it would be in the tank for Obama." How did in the tank come to mean supportive (when you really ought to be impartial)?

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Aquatics by way of pugilism. In the 19th century, Americans called swimming pools "tanks" and thus "go into the tank" was synonymous with "to dive." As far back as the 1920s, the phrase go into the tank became associated with intentionally losing a boxing match by diving onto the canvas and pretending you've been knocked out—a sense perfectly illustrated by this sentence from a 1928 New York Times article: "Pansy came out of jail and his manager, thinking him 'all washed up,' signed him up to 'take a dive,' or, more technically, 'to go into the tank' for a bird named Sailor Gray." (For more on the pugilistic origins of into the tank, see William Safire's April column on the subject.)

By the mid-20th century, go into the tank, in the sense of rolling over for someone in a rigged contest, extended into political usage. Thus in 1960, syndicated columnist Bob Ruark set up a boxing metaphor to describe the run-up to that year's presidential conventions: "I am having a tiny touch of difficulty with the American news lately, having gotten it slightly mixed up with the prize-fighting business. But if I read it right, the presidential nomination conventions have been bagged in advance … with all the other competitors rigged to go into the tank for Jolting Jack Kennedy and Richard the Ripper Nixon."

While taking a dive still refers to self-sabotage, the meaning of go into the tank gradually shifted toward working on someone's behalf, often with the hint of backroom deals or at least inappropriate devotion. As such, people weren't as likely to go into the tank as they were to be found there after the fact; i.e., they'd simply be in the tank. In a 1987 Boston Globe article by David Nyhan on the Robert Bork nomination process, we get: "Will he be in the tank for Reagan? Ted Kennedy says yes, Bork says no. I'm afraid Bork hasn't convinced me." And, also from the Globe's David Nyhan, a 1983 example of the phrase applied to a journalist: "It turns out [George] Will coached Reagan in debate, privately advised him on issues, regularly praised his presidency in print and on TV, and only rarely uttered the bare minimum of criticism that decency and appearance require. As a result of the recent commotion, Will bears the Scarlet Letter of having been in the tank for Reagan."

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Explainer thanks Grant Barrett of the American Dialect Society and Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus.

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.