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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years


(2000’s | businese | orientation, training; initiating, acquiring)

Somewhere between 2000 and 2010, this word began to show up in the business press. When you are in consulting, there is an imperative to come up with new words, even where new concepts are not available, and “onboarding” is hardly a new concept. It does sound more welcoming than the cold and bureaucratic “orientation,” although not notably idiomatic. “Training” suggests teaching the basics of the job — day-to-day duties, operating equipment, whom to report to, etc. Onboarding provides that and something more: learning one’s way around the office and absorbing the mores and folkways of the employer. A central goal of onboarding is convincing the new employee to feel like part of the organization, sharing its values and developing loyalty that transcends individual mentors or bosses. That was always an aim of orientation and training, but it is a much more explicit part of the new way of doing things. Another, less precise, way we used to say it was “getting someone up to speed,” or even “breaking someone in.”

While “onboarding” still refers most commonly to hiring and training — now often part of a larger package of services and software — it has other uses and is gaining ground as an adjective; “onboard” (verb) has reared its head and will doubtless enter everyday language if it hasn’t already. Now it is customary to talk about onboarding things with an obvious resemblance to employees — clients, patients, perhaps even a corporate acquisition — and things with no obvious resemblance, such as accounts (“open,” as we used to say) or data (“import”). This sort of grammatical and semantic promiscuity hardly raises an eyebrow any more.

One more note: While “onboarding” was often hyphenated and might even appear as two words in the early days, it usually presents itself as one word now, always accented on the first syllable regardless of part of speech.

“On board” has several roles or shades of meaning that all seem to share the idea of becoming firmly part of the group:

-bring on board: persuade, get another person to go along or get with the program
-take on board: adopt, especially an attitude or mindset; become accustomed to
-get on board OR be on board with: agree or consent (to), embrace
-come on board: join a new employer, take a new job

The last of these seems most directly related to this week’s expression, but they are all in the same ballpark. You could find any of them before 1980, but they have become more common, especially “be on board with.”

Another business buzzword in a world full of them. It neither pleases nor irritates me, something of a distinction in itself. If anything, it makes me think of motorboats. “On,” “out,” what’s the difference? It’s all the same board.

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Stockholm syndrome

(1970’s | journalese? therapese?)

survivor guilt

(1970’s | therapese)

Two expressions that go with traumatic events. Both phrases existed in the seventies, largely as technical terms that might make an occasional appearance in the press but still felt specialized. The syndrome was indeed born in Stockholm during a bank robbery and hostage-taking in 1973, after which the hostages defended their captors and refused to help prosecute them. The phrase has been defined more rigorously but still goes with situations where the victim of some sort of kidnapping or forcible restraint comes to identify with the perpetrator (and possibly vice versa). It is not a recognized medical or psychiatric term, as far as I know. “Survivor guilt” (or “survivor’s guilt”), which is commonly used by mental health professionals, seems to have originated after the Holocaust to denote the pain felt by those who had escaped death at the Nazis’ hands but lost loved ones. The phenomenon — I would rather have died in their place; why not take me instead? — is much older. Several sources in Google Books say the expression was invented in 1961 by psychiatrist William Niederland; I also saw it attributed to Robert Jay Lifton writing of people who lived through the atomic bombings in Japan. As these examples suggest, it often went with mass death and destruction.

Despite the fact that both expressions move in fairly small and well-defined circles, they have undergone some broadening of meaning. “Survivor guilt” has seen a change in scale, so that it is readily applied to relatives of suicides or individual victims of violence, an evolution that seems inevitable when one considers the murder and suicide rates in the U.S. “Stockholm syndrome” seems to be slipping into a much broader meaning that sometimes has little discernible to do with literal captivity and subjugation. It may be invoked to explain why some people stay with others who are bad for them, whether in a job, a relationship, or a political alliance.

I yoked these phrases together in a single post because I sense a connection more multifaceted than simply trauma. They both describe states of mind that may begin while a threat is active and continue long after it is dispelled. Both have seen more use because of the pandemic, “survivor guilt” for obvious reasons and “Stockholm syndrome” as a somewhat imprecise explanation for popular acquiescence with mask mandates and other overreach (i.e., the people are embracing the oppressive government). I’m armchair psychologizing here, but they both partake of a kind of overcompensation to the loss of autonomy or companionship, an unusually powerful reaction to a deep feeling of powerlessness.

I have not seen “survivor guilt” used much in cases where one person has accidentally caused the death of another (as opposed to failing to prevent it). It often arises even in cases where no blame can reasonably be assigned to the survivor; just knowing you made it through while others didn’t may bring despair with it.

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(1990’s | computerese)

Another computer term borrowed from religion, albeit with a weaker association than “avatar” or “icon.” Temples had portals in olden times, so there is a definite connection. I don’t have the knowledge or patience, and the field is ever-shifting, but someone needs to buckle down and put together a complete dictionary of computer terms, each with a full etymology that establishes its origins. That’s in the cases where computerese has borrowed existing English words, and in cases where it hasn’t. Does “byte” look familiar by any chance?

“Portal” until fairly recently was used to impart a touch of majesty, or at least class. Public buildings have them, or even mansions. A large, ornate door or gate that symbolized wealth or power, designed to be humbling — in its original sense — and impress on those who went through it that this is no ordinary place. (It’s a grand entrance, but not a “grand entrance.”) And it had a figurative meaning, too, a non-physical echo, suggesting access to an exclusive club or organization of some kind, even if no literal ingress is involved. “Portal” had specialized uses as well; a mine or tunnel entrance might be called a portal, for example. The word could bear an otherworldly touch when it referred to the passage to a magical land of some kind, such as Oz or Narnia. That shading has persisted in video games, I understand.

The computerese use, which attained currency in the nineties, has not strayed far from the old meaning. Today, a portal is an entrance to either the internet as a whole — the Yahoo page that lets you get your e-mail, read news, and search the web — or to a restricted, well-defined part of it, such as a site that posts links to other sites within a particular field; OR it is an introductory screen for a large, complicated site or series of sites that will help you navigate what follows (an “employee portal” as part of a corporate site, for example, or “patient portal” for a medical practice). In every case, the notion of a gateway remains — “gateway” in fact is a synonym — and perhaps a glimmer of grandeur, however attenuated, or if nothing else sheer size.

Indulge me in a bit of whimsy: Doesn’t “portal” sound like how a sailor ought to say “porthole”? And a porthole is a portal of sorts. Just as “foc’s’le” (forecastle) sounds rather like “foxhole.” I don’t like sailing and know nothing about boats, but I always had a soft spot for nautical vocabulary.

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lone wolf

(1990’s | journalese | “lone nut”; “solitary”)

Not a new expression, but the way we use it has changed quite a bit, and Lex Maniac never shies away from peripheral political commentary. “Lone wolf” was available both as noun and adjective in my youth and before. It was for trappers, prospectors, cowboys — people who worked in small, dispersed groups to start with and then went out on their own from there. By 1990, the phrase comfortably modified public officials, corporate executives, and the like. As an adjective, it almost invariably modified people. Now it is much more likely to go with an act, usually a terrorist act (“lone-wolf attack”). Which raises an interesting point: Must a lone wolf belong, however loosely, to an organization? Or must it be a loner with no ties who commits an act of carnage? There’s two ways to look at it: either a lone wolf has deliberately left the pack and no longer considers himself part of it (“gone rogue,” we would say now); or the lone wolf acts on his own to serve the interest of the pack. My sense is that in the old days the former sense predominated and now the latter has moved in and taken charge. A lone wolf is much more likely to be understood as serving a larger group, even if not in direct coordination with it. The old lone wolf stood away from the crowd; the new lone wolf still runs with the pack (and there’s a big difference between a crowd and a pack).

So you might say the expression has been hijacked and the terrorists have won. “Lone wolf” may yet bear traces of its old aristocratic meaning, evoking a lupine form poised on a windswept rock, facing the moon and ready to strike out on its own. Far more often, the nobility in the phrase has disappeared, or is visible only to sympathizers, never to everyone else, particularly those harmed by lone-wolf action. The old lone wolf raised the specter of a brave, principled animal; the new appeals to subterfuge in the service of death and terror. The wolf’s rapacity is emphasized rather than its pride or sternness. I think what happened is that we had to develop a vocabulary of terrorism, because there has been so much more of it in the last fifty years. As this particular strategy became more ordinary, an old expression was there to slide in and name it easily and comprehensibly. The adjective role that has been filled by “lone wolf” could have done worse.

Historically, there is nothing new about mass violence; humans have been killing other humans by the cartload for millennia, greedily taking advantage of improved technology or degraded moral standards to kill more at a time. But in the old days you had to raise an army to do serious damage. Now one person with a machine gun and a little ingenuity can kill dozens in a flash — not slaughter on the scale of World War II but disturbing to anyone of good will. Of course, most of us don’t carry on that way. I wonder if the run of humanity (not just first-worlders) finds mass killing more repugnant than the run of humanity a thousand years ago. If so, that is a sign of hope. Give us a few more millennia, if we can go that long without destroying the planet, and maybe we’ll outlast our yen for massacre.

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crash and burn

(1980’s | businese? | “fall from grace,” “drop like a rock,” “fail spectacularly,” “crap out”)

Lex Maniac seems to be drifting into a pattern of belatedly considering rough synonyms. Following on “crater,” I regaled you with “tank,” and now “crash and burn,” a fairly close relative of both. One gets into these ruts now and then when one blogs for ten years. (Ulp! Ten years?!) If it’s any consolation, this is probably the least interesting of the three — but who knows what my stale brain will conjure next week? — so I’ll try to keep it short.

In 1980, the expression was already fixed but was used almost invariably for planes and other aircraft. (Maybe the odd bus now and then.) In the following decade, it began to turn up in common figurative use, especially but not exclusively in the financial and entertainment press. Its primary distinction from “tank” and “crater,” it seems to me, is that a single person can do it. You probably wouldn’t hear “Joe cratered” or “Joe tanked,” but “Joe crashed and burned” doesn’t sound strange. “Crater” and “tank” have stronger roots in statistics and numbers more generally — it’s not invariable, but often they are used in cases of measurable or quantifiable decline. “Crash and burn” swings both ways, too, but seems more at home where numbers are not involved. Otherwise, the phrases are similar, sharing a sense of quick, dramatic, violent collapse.

To crash and burn, you have to be flying high. The expression calls to mind Icarus, who crashed but did not burn. The implication that the person so affected may have brought it on himself is often present but not invariable. Even a mediocre stock can tank or crater, but to crash and burn, a stock has to have a stratospheric price, a politician has to be a rising star or seemingly impregnable, a movie has to be costly and heralded.

There’s not a whole lot to this expression otherwise. “Crash” has long borne the sense of a sharp, sudden loss of status or value, and “crash and burn” is probably no more than an elaboration of that. You still find it frequently in businese, where it recurs reliably. It’s not clear that it’s related directly to “fall into a deep sleep,” but it is almost certainly related indirectly. It’s popular as a title in popular entertainment, so there a number of songs, movies, etc. called “Crash and Burn.” Urban Dictionary reminds us that it may refer specifically to someone’s life falling apart on account of excessive drug use (“crashing” is something that drug users do a lot, so the association is natural). Noted in passing: “Crash and burn” has its origins in aviation, a member of a small but distinguished family that includes “ahead of the curve,” “flame out,” “glide path,” “under the radar,” and “wingman.”

I have failed to keep it short; I’ve indulged my usual prolix tendencies and my laudable intentions have crashed and burned. That shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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(2000’s? | “disinfectant,” “antiseptic”)

We’ve all had plenty of dealings with sanitizer over the past year, and its companion verb bears watching, too. Both terms have changed over time — the verb arguably in a more interesting way — and both have profited from the pandemic.

Let’s have fun with sanitizer first. The word is not new, but its scale has shrunk considerably in fifty years. In the old days, sanitizer was used for big cleaning projects. You might prefer one chemical to another, but you were in an industrial setting of some kind. Such usage has not disappeared, but we’re much more likely to think of it as a personal thing. We all carry the little bottles around with us now. Whether you prefer liquid or gel, you have your own supply and you apply it to your skin. That was not what sanitizer was for in the good old days. At first, personal-sized containers were said to contain “hand sanitizer.” The qualifier is necessary now only in specialized contexts; in everyday language we rarely bother with the distinction.

“Sanitize” has had a different career. It too had a longstanding technical meaning, and Google Books suggests that before 1970 or so it was used primarily in the context of food preparation and service, though it also seems to have been used a lot in egg and dairy production — farmers had to worry about sanitizing their equipment and even sanitizing eggs for market. But “sanitize” by the seventies had sprouted a metaphorical meaning that its close relatives had not. It was used in political journalism to mean something like “whitewash” (also figurative) — alter the public record, usually to avoid holding someone responsible for their misdeeds. Other things could be sanitized, too; sometimes it wasn’t much different from “bowdlerize.”

The odd thing is that “disinfect” never developed a similar definition. (There is a saying in politics that “sunlight [meaning public proceedings with full transparency and disclosure] is the best disinfectant,” but I think that’s as close as it gets to a figurative sense.) The fact that “sanitize” got the figurative meaning is rather puzzling. It does not seem any more adaptable than “disinfect” (or “antiseptic”). I can’t remember exactly when carrying around small containers of sanitizer became commonplace, but I think it was after 2000. The surge in sanitizer undoubtedly made the word more familiar and may have spurred the verb to greater heights. My sense is that when the pandemic took hold we all started using “sanitize” for “disinfect” more than we had before; if that’s true, it was probably influenced by the prevalence of the noun. That doesn’t explain the older figurative use, however.

To kids of my generation, “disinfectant” and “antiseptic” were scary words because it stung when Mom put them on a cut or scrape. “Sanitizer” wasn’t used that way then and isn’t now, as far as I know; it kills germs all over, not in one specific place. No doubt that absence of association made it more suitable for a different function, a function that has become an ineluctable part of our lives. “Sanitizer” seems destined for a long, healthy career. Unless, as with antibiotics, we realize too late that overuse does more harm than good by making microbes mutate in maleficent ways.

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(1990’s | journalese (arts) | “(offer a) sneak preview,” “whet their appetites (for),” “hint (at),” “reveal OR announce (the existence of),” “tout”)

“Tease” has led a complicated life for some time; its newest definition (see below) follows from existing meanings and adds another layer to the complexity. The most common type of teasing when I was young — commenting ironically on another person’s shortcoming or oddity — could be kind or cruel, gentle or sadistic. The word itself didn’t differentiate. And “tease” occupied another Roget’s slot — not entirely unrelated but not a near neighbor, either — where the primary characteristic was deception. It was promising more than you intended to deliver, or toying with someone’s desires without fulfilling them. Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football formed the ultimate teasing triangle: one child taking advantage of another’s credulity and misplaced hope. Lucy was not just tormenting Charlie Brown but also exposing his weakness. The word went in different directions: cheerful ribbing or calculated meanness; or leading someone on then denying gratification.

Today’s meaning lies closer to the second idea, but the implications of deception and unsatisfactory results have (mostly) been removed. So has the idea that the object of teasing must be a living creature, human or animal. One teases — widely used as verb and noun, but it seems more novel as a verb — a forthcoming event, usually the release of a work of popular art such as a song, album, movie, or television series. It is normally done by someone involved in the project, if not the primary artist. The noun is simple: any acknowledgment of the work, or the act of acknowledging it, counts as a tease, whether it reveals anything or not. (In fact, a tease may reveal only that a project may or may not take place and act simply as a trial balloon.) The verb is more slippery, because it raises a question: Is the work being teased or the audience? In the most common construction, it’s the former: Billie Eilish teases a new song, or Ryan Coogler teases a new movie. They’re not interested in yanking the football away from their fans; they want to entice them. But even in the most innocent cases, a hint remains of playing on your audience’s wishes and getting their hopes up. Somewhere, somebody will be disappointed.

An obvious ancestor is the noun “teaser,” which goes back at least a century in the advertising biz and meant roughly what “tease” means now. That’s no doubt the closest relative, but the interplay sketched above is more interesting. One can find examples of today’s use of “tease” before 2000, but according to LexisNexis it didn’t really take off until after 2010. The new sense bobs up so often now that it seems to be in the process of supplanting the old meaning; when kids make fun of each other it’s called bullying whether intended to be hurtful or not. It’s hard to believe the old meaning will disappear; if it does, it will mark an important change in our understanding of human relations. We will have abandoned the old notions that teasing is good for kids because it thickens their skin or teaches them to handle unpleasant people. Not to mention the notion that a certain amount of chaff may be salutary, even enjoyable, for the recipient.

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not the boss of me

(1990’s | child’s language | “(you, etc.) don’t tell me what to do”)

The extraordinary thing about this expression is that it originated among children yet has made the leap into adult vocabulary. There are surely other examples, but I can’t think of a similar case among the many expressions I have written up so far. Some adolescent or collegiate expressions have crossed over — go commando, I’m aware, love handles, relatable, the struggle is real (maybe), wonk — but “not the boss of me” comes from a still more primal place.

The expression turns out to be very old; some dogged historians have found examples as far back as the nineteenth century. Much on-line ink has been spilled over the history, grammar, and significance of the phrase, which I won’t rehearse, but I noticed something mildly interesting in LexisNexis: the first instances occurred in Canada, with a couple of outliers in the late eighties and several more in the early nineties. The first citation in the U.S. press dates from 1994. Is this another expression we “Owe Canada”?

As for the recent spread of the expression: most on-line sources agree that the theme song for sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” (debuted 2001), written and performed by They Might Be Giants, helped take the phrase to the next level. The show was aimed at teenagers, and the band has a solid adult audience. Monica Lewinsky said it in a widely publicized interview in the late nineties, when she was a very young adult. Such prominent uses helped ease the phrase into everyday language. As for the grammatical oddity of this expression, imagine another kids’ refrain in the same structure: it’s not the fault of me. Ever heard that? It is an anomalous construction not at all characteristic of kids, who learn “my” and “mine” very early. There is an enduring mystery to “not the boss of me” that keeps it thriving.

As adults, we know hundreds of children’s locutions from baby talk through elementary school, and we use them — to talk to kids. They learn old ones from us, and we learn new ones from them once they reach a certain age. But in our discourse with each other, we don’t go on about die-dies or lob schoolyard insults back and forth, even if we stoop occasionally to “neener, neener” — which I never heard when I was a kid; our equivalent was “nyah-nyah-nuh-nyah-nyah.” But when we do that, we’re deliberately adopting a childish attitude or accusing someone else of having done so. I’m suggesting that “not the boss of me” is beginning to break away, used by adults with each other without attempting to partake of a child’s manner or sentiments, especially in political commentary. True, the phrase continues to hold childish overtones most of the time, but not all the time.

I’m tempted to try to account for the phenomenon, though I know it’s a fool’s errand. “Not the boss of me” comports well with extreme individualism and libertarianism, both of which are influential in the U.S. despite a laughable lack of logic, common sense, or explanatory power. And perhaps the ascent of the expression in this particular context does retain a touch of the infantile, a subterranean acknowledgment that there is always a fatally childish quality to libertarianism, a mixture of oversimplification and tantrum that transposes a toddler’s impatience with authority onto a larger view of the world. In other words, my theory about this expression may be completely wrong. So be it; I don’t need no lousy gummint to help me absorb the risk.

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no whining on the yacht

(2000’s | “noblesse oblige,” “stiff upper lip”)

This week’s expression crossed my desk for the first time last Monday in one of Carolyn Hax’s advice columns. Never heard it before then. The first instance LexisNexis tosses up is due to columnist and novelist Connie Schultz, who attributed it in turn to her editor at Random House, Kate Medina. That was back in 2007. Schultz happens to be married to Senator Sherrod Brown, so when it isn’t associated with her it is yoked to various members of Congress; I’ve seen it credited to Al Franken, Earl Blumenauer, Angus King, and of course Brown himself. The rise has been slow, but the rate of occurrence seems to be picking up, and non-Congresspersons may now use the phrase with impunity — presumably not because they admire the institution, given its shockingly low approval rating.

The meaning requires a bit of teasing out (only a bit). At ground level, it translates as “if you’re rich, don’t complain.” It is directed specifically at the wealthy and privileged; columnist Bob Molinaro described it as “the first rule of rich people.” It is gauche to whine over your petty problems when you live in the lap of luxury. If you must feel sorry for yourself, do it where no one can hear you. Yet the expression is picked up surprisingly often by the petit bourgeois, who make it the star of a be-grateful-for-what-you’ve-got morality play, the point being not that millionaires should shut up but that we should all stop griping because we’re so much better off than most people on earth. As long as someone is worse off than you, you have no right to complain. I live in New York, where complaining is how we communicate, strangers and intimates alike — one of the great common currencies of this sprawling city. So I say this line of thinking can be taken too far. It’s proper to note that listening to the one percent complain about their first-world problems is exquisitely grating, but to suggest the rest of us first-worlders don’t have anything to complain about is presumptuous, if you ask me.

Before this phrase hits the big time, it’s worth noting that it has a certain class-based duplicity, or at least the potential for it, as noted above. On the surface, it looks like a straightforward jab against the tiresome rich. But it does seem to be useful as a club against the rest of us, which means the one percent — who own a lot of media — can redirect it as moral snark lobbed at everyone else, rather than a plain indictment of superficial, whiny wealth nuts. Some populism is real, pushed and propagated by people genuinely concerned with advancing the general welfare, but most of it is fake, driven by a desire to keep most of the population in line and docile. (The “docile” part isn’t working so well these days, apparently.)

I’d have to do more research, but this appears to be one of those expressions that can be traced to a specific person (or two, in a few cases). Other examples: cognitive dissonance, factoid, failure is not an option, foodie, glass ceiling, gridlock, has left the building, hot button, irrational exuberance, live your best life, male bonding, nothing-burger, put a ring on it, sabermetrics, speed dating, tiger mother, trophy wife, type A, unclear on the concept, who moved my cheese. Connie Schultz was certainly the megaphone, if not the originator, so she gets credit for dissemination, at least. “No whining on the yacht” is spreading slowly, but it’s spreading.

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(1980’s | businese (finance) | “drop,” “go downhill (in a hurry),” “plummet”)

Lex Maniac is slow but sure. I had almost finished my last post (“crater”) before I realized “tank” has a very similar meaning and history, and I resolved then and there to cover it next. The two verbs are generally interchangeable, but there is one notable divergence: it’s easier to recover from tanking. More drastic action is required to recover from cratering. A stock may tank and spike again; if it craters, it probably won’t.

Both expressions seem to have arisen during the 1980’s, mainly in financial writing, although “tank” has its origins in athletese. Sportswriters have used “tank” for decades to mean “lose deliberately,” originally at the behest of gamblers, though that implication has worn away. Its reach has broadened over time to include entire seasons rather than single games or matches. Towards the end of last year’s NFL season, the word got quite a workout in discussions of whether the two weakest teams in the league, the Jets and Jaguars, would lose games deliberately in order to finish with the worst record and therefore get the top draft pick. Players asserted, as they must, that they weren’t tanking; columnists wondered if the coaches and front office were. “Tank,” once associated primarily with sports like boxing and tennis, is used often now to talk about teams rather then individuals.

The financial usage does not suggest intentional failure; a stock price or the entire economy may tank for reasons beyond anyone’s control. It has become standard if still a bit slangy (slang adds tang). Lately the word goes often with “fortune,” and you read about a fortune tanking when someone loses a lot of money. The arenas of sport and finance seem to require such words of ill omen more than others, where abasement may replace jubilation with lightning speed. Politics, too, of course. When your fortune tanks, you’re out a lot of money. When your fortunes tank, your public career is over.

“Tank” has other meanings that probably have nothing to do with this one, so what the hell, here are two: communal jail cell (drunk tank), and communal intellectual effort (think tank). The idea seems to be that because the tank is enclosed, it fosters interaction and therefore teamwork, or at least drunken banter. “Get tanked,” by the way, means “get drunk,” and “tanked” is used occasionally to mean drunk. (Not, alas, an echo of “tankard,” but possibly related to “drunk tank.”) “In the tank” is another way to say “gone to the dogs” or “in the toilet.” These seem closer in spirit to the sports and financial uses. There is no apparent lineal descent from either “tank town” (old-fashioned term for small and insignificant place), or the weapon. In fact, none of the manifold definitions of “tank” seems to have much to do with our verb, with the possible exception of “in the tank.” Maybe that’s the connection, though it doesn’t seem very satisfying. Why should “tank” mean throw a game? Or “fall hard and fast”? It isn’t very plausible. “Crater” makes much more sense.

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