In a Word: Tanks for Water and War

Until the beginning of the 20th century, a tank was just something for holding liquid; then it became something for waging war.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today. 

War leaves its mark on the world physically, emotionally, and politically — but also linguistically. Battle efforts and military advances open new avenues for word coinages, and English is rife with common words born of war, including not only terminology with an obvious military focus, like sniper, camouflage, and shellshock, but less conspicuous words like raunchy, trench coat, and cooties. 

Military terms are rarely coined from nothing. Often they come from the repurposing of common words for specific military purposes. Which brings us to the story of how the word tank, once used to indicate a hollow vessel for holding liquids, came to indicate one of the most destructive armored land vehicles ever made. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, as the weapons of war had become more destructive, some focus was put toward developing stronger defenses against those weapons. Developers all over the world were experimenting with armored vehicles, but governments weren’t too eager to commit their resources. 

But then came World War I. Necessity being the mother of invention, armored vehicle research suddenly came to the fore, and the peculiarities of that particular war guided its direction. The first armored vehicles were simply cars and trucks to which armor had been added. These were fine for speeding down smooth roads, but on actual battlefields they were useless. What was needed was a vehicle that could traverse wide trenches and roll over barbed wire unhampered. 

What was needed was a vessel that moved over land as a warship moved over water — a landship, as it were. 

To that end, Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, helped establish the Admiralty Landships Committee in early 1915 to develop and test cross-country armored vehicles. 

Such a vessel could only be successful if the enemy had no time to prepare countermeasures. To that end, the development of these landships was kept secret — so secret, in fact, that the factory workers didn’t even know what they were making. Because the pieces fit together to create large, hollow, metal, mobile containers, someone at the top — and the stories differ on who — suggested that they be referred to as “Water Carriers for Russia” in official documents. 

Someone in the group (in some probably apocryphal stories, Winston Churchill himself) noticed that “Water Carriers for Russia” would be abbreviated “WCs for Russia.” WC was (and still is) a common abbreviation for “water closet,” what Americans call a bathroom. 

The idea of the British government shipping toilets to Russia to help the war effort would look a little funny, but it could also look a little suspicious — too much like a code name for something larger (which it was). In the end, the decision was made to refer to them as “Water Tanks for Russia,” and to perpetuate the deception, the Landship Committee was renamed the Tank Supply Committee. 

The landship never made it to the battlefield. When the British army ordered its first round of the new armored, all-terrain vehicles in February 1916, they ordered tanks, the word we’ve used ever since. 

Featured image: Shutterstock

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