Live, from New York, it’s still not funny!
Dear Word Detective: According to a recent Saturday Night Live, the media are in the tank for Obama. So, what does “in the tank for …” mean? What is the history of this expression? So, if the media are in the tank for Obama are they all wet? — Rob Calcote.
Holy moly, you’re that guy! The guy who watches Saturday Night Live! Wow. It must be like standing guard in the Western Aleutians. Lonely, cold, haunted by the gnawing fear that you’ve been forgotten, and no company except a Ron Paul supporter who simply won’t shut up.
Just kidding, of course. A lot of people must be watching SNL, because Google coughs up 22,600 hits for the phrase “in the tank for Obama,” most making at least a glancing reference to the recent “Weekend Update” skit parodying CNN for supposedly being biased against Hillary Clinton.
To be “in the tank” for someone or something is to be firmly committed to that person or cause, usually surreptitiously and despite avowals of neutrality. If you’re “in the tank,” you’re no longer leaning that way, or on the fence, or flirting with the cause. You have both feet planted on that side of the fence, although you may not admit it.
“In the tank” seems a particularly mysterious turn of phrase because it’s difficult to image what the “tank” might be and, for that matter, what being in any tank would have to do with secretly being on a particular side of a dispute. Things get a bit clearer, however, when we discover that “in the tank” is several steps removed from its original, much more logical, roots. It all started in the boxing ring, where a fighter who had agreed to “throw” (intentionally lose) a fight was said to “take a dive,” from the action of falling to the floor of the ring.
The metaphor of diving was further extended in another boxing phrase with the same meaning, “to go in the tank,” in this case referring to an imaginary tank of water into which the fighter would dive (perhaps partly inspired by carnival games where a clown in dumped into a tank of water). “To go in the tank” was eventually shortened to the verb “to tank,” meaning “to lose intentionally,” and spread to other sports and general slang use in the early 20th century. By the 1970s, however, “to tank” had lost the sense of “to lose deliberately” and came to mean simply “to fall sharply in value or to fail utterly and/or spectacularly” (“The stock market tanked again today”).
But while “tank” by itself changed its meaning, the original form “in the tank” was apparently resuscitated in the early 1990s with the meaning of “biased in favor of” or “working in cahoots with.” President George H.W. Bush used the phrase, with a clear reference to its origins, in his speech at the Republican National Convention in 1992: “After all, my opponent’s campaign is being backed by practically every trial lawyer who ever wore a tasseled loafer. He’s not in the ring with them; he’s in the tank.”