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Why Does “Tanked” Mean Drunk?

The history of drunkenness is filled with interesting turns of phrase. Three sheets to the wind, under the table, etched, sloshed, blasted, and tanked are among them, all of which leave an individual needing a hangover cure in Key West the next morning. But where do these terms come from? What originally inspired folks to use that term to describe the state of extreme inebriation?

While words of war (bombed, blasted, annihilated) are often used to describe an individual who is drunk, tanked is not among them. The term “tanked” comes from the term “drunk tank”—a place where inebriated individuals are kept so that their drunkenness does not disrupt the rest of civil society.

What else does “tanked” mean?

There are two other places where the term “tanked” has meaning.

  • In terms of a stock, the economy, or a major asset, the value can “tank”. If the value “tanks” it goes down rapidly, much like Bitcoin.
  • Tanked also has a meaning in sports. Tanked means to intentionally lose or intentionally create a bad situation for you or your own team. For instance, when a boxer “tanked” a match, they “threw” the match, or lost on purpose. If a fielder in baseball, “tanked” a play, they may have exerted very little effort to make the play or intentionally let one slip by.
  • The term “tanked” for drunk dates as far back as the late 19th century.

What is a Drunk Tank?

A drunk tank, simply put, is a jail cell for drunks. Drunks are thrown into the drunk tank where they can sober up. If they have been arrested for a criminal offense, they may be charged in the morning. More often than not, they are simply released with a disorderly conduct ticket which carries the same weight as a parking violation.

In the early days of the late 19th and early 20th century, these drunk tanks were sometimes mobile. They were given the somewhat racist name of “paddywagon” supposedly because many of their inhabitants were Irish. In addition, Irishmen made up a large percentage of the police force in earlier American times and some believe that’s where the name came from.

What is Paddywhackery?

Why do we not think that the latter explanation is likely? There are several reasons. Firstly, clowns are believed to have originated in something known as “Paddywhackery.” Paddywhackery refers to a portrayal of the Irish on stage as goofy drunken slobs. This arose, of course, in England where it spread to America in the form of the traditional representation of the clown.

Clowns have red hair and red noses. Irish people have red hair and drunks have gin blossoms which give them red noses. Hence why the clown is an extremely derogatory stereotype of the Irish.

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