Tag Archives: code words



This week’s word is tank and we’re talking about the military type, not a water tank or a fish tank.

Tank entered the English language in the early 1600s with the meaning of “a pool for irrigation or drinking water”. The Portugese word tanque (reservoir) may come from Vulgar Latin stanticare and estancar (hold back a current of water) or may have a Hindi source in India. Gujarti (language of Gujarat Indian state) has the word tankh (cistern) and Marathi (spoken by 80 million Marathi people in India) has tanken or tanka (reservoir). The roots aren’t clear on origin but clearly a word like tank was used with the watery meaning in several locations.

Tank as a name for an armoured vehicle moving on continuous tracks entered English much later, 1915 to be precise, and was originally a British code word. In late 1915 when the “caterpillar machine-gun destroyer machines” were being developed it was decided to call the team the Tank Supply Committee. Alternatives suggested were cistern and reservoir as the tanks looked like water tanks in the early stages of their creation and were disguised as such. The shortest term, tank, was chosen.

Tanks were first used in action at Pozieres ridge, on the Western Front, Sept. 15, 1916, and the name was quickly picked up by the soldiers. My grandfather later described hearing them trundling up to the lines under cover of darkness, much to the amazement of the troops who were used to bicycles, horses, and swords being used in the conflict.

I only recently discovered an Irish link to the military tank (thanks to “On This Day Volume 2” by Miles Dungan). Walter Gordon Wilson, born in Dublin in 1874, invented the tank along with William Tritton. Early models were called Little Willie, Big Willie, and the Centipede. The tanks used in 1916 were hot, noisy, and often broke down before they reached the trenches but the duo improved them and by 1918 they were playing an important role in the Great War.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)