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Starting with the Fifth Edition (1936), seven generations of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary have included (under the entry for tap) three definitions of "on tap," currently worded as follows:

on tap 1 : ready to be drawn from a large container(as a cask or keg) ["ale on tap"] 2 : broached or furnished with a tap 3 : on hand : available. ["services instantly on tap" —Hugh Dwan]

(The first two of these three definitions go as far back as the 1864 edition of Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language.)

But the Tenth Collegiate (1994) introduced a fourth definition for "on tap":

4 : coming up ["other matches on tap" —H. W. Wind]

The "H. W. Wind" cited by Webster's appears to be Herbert Warren Wind (1916-2005), an American sportswriter who wrote most often about golf. I have frequently heard "on tap" used in this relatively new fourth way in recent years, mostly in connection with impending sporting events. In fact, the San Francisco Giants radio network has a sponsored segment called "What's On Tap" ("brought to you by TAP Plastics") devoted to identifying and briefly discussing the next game or series of games on the Giants' schedule. I can sort of see how "on tap" in the sense of "in reserve" or "at the ready" might be extended to something like "ready to happen but still in the future"; however, the meaning "next on the schedule" seems another (and rather long) jump from there.

My questions are (1) did the fourth meaning of "on tap" emerge from one of the other three, and if so, how? (2) how far back in time does the usage of "on tap" to mean "coming up" go? (3) is this a U.S.-only usage, or do other forms of English use it, too?

I note that Eric Partridge lists two seemingly unrelated slang phrases from British English: "on the tap" ("begging for money") and "on tap" ("all modern conveniences, including h. and c.").

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2  
All flow from the original sense of tapping a cask or keg. It should be no surprise that the process lends itself to metaphor. –  Robusto Feb 22 '13 at 3:54
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@Robusto Especially in the age of sport-on-demand: turn on the TV and draw yourself a foaming mug of football. –  StoneyB Feb 22 '13 at 4:32
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Note also on deck (a nautical term repurposed as a baseball term for the next pitcher); @Robusto is correct to attribute it to metaphor, which underlies most of ours language. –  John Lawler Feb 22 '13 at 5:23

1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

1)

The second British example Eric Partridge refers to having a modern house with both hot and cold running water on tap:

"on tap" ("all modern conveniences, including h. and c.").

This is somewhat similar to Merriam-Webster's first and third definitions in that they all suggest having something readily available when needed*:

on tap 1 : ready to be drawn from a large container (as a cask or keg) ["ale on tap"] ...
3 : on hand : available. ["services instantly on tap" —Hugh Dwan]

The fourth is an extension of this:

4 : coming up ["other matches on tap" —H. W. Wind]

Something coming up soon is readily available.


* "On tap" is such a natural phrase for "readily available" I almost used it here to describe itself.

2)

When referring to "matches on tap", it can be found at least as far back as 1891, such as in The Sun, (New York [N.Y.], November 29, 1891), "Within the Roped Arena":

Chicago has a couple of matches on tap. Tommy Ryan and Bill Howson, the Englishman, being on the card at 144 pounds for Dec 12. Before this, however, Johnny Van Heest and Tom White, 120-pound men, will meet to-day.

Chicago has a couple of matches on tap. Tommy Ryan and Bill Howson, the Englishman, being on the card at 144 pounds for Dec 12. Before this, however, Johnny Van Heest and Tom White, 120-pound men, will meet to-day.

3)

I'm not familiar with this fourth example of "on tap" in British usage, but all the others are. (Although, I can't recall hearing "on the tap" ("begging for money"). It may be a bit dated.)

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Excellent answer, Hugo. Given this early instance of the term in the fourth definition's sense, is there any chance that "on tap" def. 4 originally referred to the tapping of the pugilists' fists that marked the beginning of a boxing match, rather than to tapped and spigoted kegs of drink? The case for independent origin of the fourth definition becomes somewhat stronger given that the example you cite antedates the appearance of the third definition in Webster's ("on hand: available") by 45 years. Of course, instances of def. 3 undoubtedly go much farther back than the 1930s. –  Sven Yargs Feb 22 '13 at 18:26
    
I don't think it's specifically from boxing, but we'd need more evidence to be certain either way. / The OED combines the literal and figurative meanings of having something readily available. I think their 1483 is literal. Their 1862 is figurative: "Who is he that..has eloquence always on tap?" –  Hugo Feb 22 '13 at 21:16

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