After Hours

Geek Trivia: Playing the name game

How did the word <i>tank</i> come to describe the now famous armored military vehicles that debuted in World War I?

Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is on secret assignment for the TechRepublic Community Team, so we're covering for him by pulling this Memorial Day-appropriate Classic Geek, which originally ran Feb. 25, 2004, from our archives.

The development of the tank as a military weapon is one of the more explicit examples of necessity being the mother of invention. Engineers originally designed the now commonplace armored vehicles to counter the then novel combat realities of World War I.

During the first "Great War," the widespread adoption of the machine gun had made traditional open-field infantry movements impossible, necessitating the advent of trench warfare to provide low-profile position cover against near-constant enemy fire. The trenches, in turn, made it all but impossible to conduct open-field vehicular and artillery movements.

With its characteristic all-terrain treads, armored hull, and rotating gun turret, the tank was able to withstand most small-arms fire and cross most trenches without the aid of bridging equipment. Used to its full advantage, the tank could expedite battle maneuvers that trench warfare had slowed to a crawl—not bad for a descendent of the tractor.

The earliest tracked military vehicles were steam-powered tractors, which first emerged in the 1850s as answers to pulling cargo over muddied terrain. (However, the tank's caterpillar track first appeared in the 1770s.) Subsequent decades witnessed the continuing development of armored versions of these tractors, eventually employing internal combustion engines.

However, military officials long refused to concede the potential of these unconventional transports. In fact, the first actual tanks wouldn't see combat until Sept. 15, 1916.

What makes this technological foot-dragging even stranger is that it was the British Royal Navy—not the Army—that spearheaded the development of what is perhaps the most effective and influential land combat vehicle of the last century. No less a historical figure than Winston Churchill was among those officials who backed the formation of the Navy's Landships Committee, a group charged with developing an armored, treaded vehicle to serve as a land counterpart to conventional naval vessels.

Of course, by the time they thundered onto the battlefield, these juggernauts were no longer called landships (or armored tractors), but the origin of the term tank to describe an armored, treaded, turreted military vehicle is somewhat unusual in its own right.

HOW DID THE WORD TANK COME TO DESCRIBE THE NOW FAMOUS ARMORED MILITARY VEHICLES THAT DEBUTED IN WORLD WAR I?

How did the rather nondescript word tank come to designate armored, treaded, turreted military vehicles, first used in World War I?

First and foremost, British officials chose tank precisely because it was less descriptive than landship. Officials didn't want enemy intelligence to grasp exactly what type of new military project they were working on.

The specific choice of tank, however, is subject to some controversy, and competing theories abound as to why this term prevailed.

The most often cited story behind tank holds that the members of the Landships Committee and the Inventions Committees likened the early vehicle prototypes to large vessels of water, a description that almost certainly wouldn't divulge sensitive details to enemy spies. Thus, they briefly code-named landships Water Carriers.

However, legend has it that one of the British officers in charge of the project realized that the military penchant for initial abbreviations would dub a water carrier a WC, and he instead changed the code name to tank.

For those of you unfamiliar with British vernacular, the term WC most often refers to a water closet, otherwise known as a toilet. British officials had no desire to test "WC prototypes" or train "WC crews," so it's easy to see why "tank" was preferable to "water carrier."

However, this code name outlasted the development project, and the military still referred to the new military vehicles as tanks rather than landships when the vehicles entered combat in 1916.

The French had their own independent, parallel tank development effort—they called their first-generation armored, treaded, turreted tractors Schneiders, named after the factory where they built them. However, the British term tank became the universal English term for these vehicles—despite the fact that the French also built the Renault FT-17s, the first tanks used by U.S. forces.

In any case, the term prevails today, as every major military in the world boasts an armor contingent, and odds are that none of the brave soldiers who crew these vehicles has ever called one a landship.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia. (To see the original quibble from this article, see Listing A.)

This week's quibble comes from the May 3 edition of Geek Trivia, "A syncing feeling." TechRepublic member Larry.macneill quibbled with one of my throwaway observations about special relativity.

"[You wrote] 'The culprit is none other than Einstein's theory of relativity (which, at this point, really appears to be more of a fact than a theory).' The dichotomy of fact and theory is a false one. A fact is an observation, and a theory is an explanation supported by facts."

Member Tom.Merritt took the point a little further.

"Theory and fact are not mutually exclusive, although several loud public groups attempt to twist this. There are eight definitions for the word at Dictionary.com.

"Definition #1 nicely describes a 'theory' such as relativity: 'A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.'

"Definition #6 is: 'An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.'

"Geek, you are a wordsmith, and a good one. As such, you have influence over the way people perceive things. I'd really like to see you address this in a future column."

I'll take that suggestion under advisement, dear reader. In the meanwhile, keep those quibbles coming!

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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