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Grammar

Why Tank Tops Came to Be Called ‘Wife Beaters’

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Tank tops were once considered undershirts, but nowadays, they’re often the only shirt. But why do we call them ‘wife beaters’?

I found an interesting story about “wife beaters,” the nickname some people have for those sleeveless tank tops some people wear. The nickname is odd on its own. But I find the reason behind the nickname disturbing…assuming the story is true.

Why ‘tank tops’?

Before we get to the notion of “wife beaters,” let’s tackle “tank tops.” Both seem to be curious nicknames for a sleeveless t-shirt, right? The New York Times suggests the name “tank top” came from “tank suit.” What we consider the tank top today was the top half of a swimming suit that both men and women wore.

Yes, there was a time when men always wore shirts in a swimming pool. Blame the Victorian Age, perhaps. But there was a time too much skin was just plain scandalous.

The tank part, according to the Times, came from Great Britain. In the early 20th century, the British commonly referred to swimming pools as “tanks.” So the two-piece swimwear one wore in a swimming pool — which they called a “tank” — became the tank suit. The upper half of that suit became the “tank top.”

When we refer to a husband who physically assaults his wife, we understand where wife beater comes from. But to turn that term into a name of a shirt seems a bit off.

Dictionary.com tells us the connection between the violence and that particular undergarment originated in 1947. That year, a story about a Detroit native arrested for beating his wife to death received national attention. I felt the temptation to say it “went viral,” but the only kind of viral in 1947 involved actual viruses!

But in this case, news reports included a photo of the man at the time of his arrest. As you can probably guess, he was wearing a tank top. The website points out it was complete with baked beans stains. It carried the caption, “the wife-beater.”

That’s all it took, apparently, to connect the shirt with the name.

‘Cancel culture’ targets wife beaters

Then comes the news from The New York Post that Generation Z is working to rid our language of the term. Rather than “wife beater,” which certainly doesn’t politically correct — or remotely pleasant — they’re trying to come up with a new nickname for the tank top.

As if tank top isn’t sufficient to communicate the type of shirt we’re talking about.

“These days,” the Post reports, “the so-called kinder, gentler generation has come up with a new name for the controversial classic: ‘wife pleaser.’”

Really?

I don’t know how many women are pleased at the sight of a guy in a tank top…unless he’s a really good looking and/or muscular guy. I suspect none would be too pleased to see one wearing a “wife pleaser” with baked bean stains.

But that’s just a guess on my part.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.