3

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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    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
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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.)

  • 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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I have done a great deal of reading on chess history, and it is clear to me that the original phrase was on the tapis. Upcoming matches were constantly referred to as on the tapis in the 19th century; one of many dozens of examples in my notes comes from the Albion of Feb 5, 1853. I understand that the origin of this older phrase is similar to on the table, and I feel confident it was shortened to on tap rathe than coming from other sources.

1

Somehow I failed to note Jerry Spinrad's answer until now—but I think his suggestion that "on tap" in the sense of "coming up" emerged from the older idiom "on the tapis" has a lot going for it, as a matter of chronology. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2010) has this entry for tapis:

tapis n. Obsolete Tapestry or comparable material used for draperies, carpeting, and furniture covering. idiom: on the tapis Under consideration. {Middle English [tapiceri, tapstri] < Old French [tapisserie < tapisser, to cover with carpet < tapis, carpet]; see TAPESTRY}

Bartlett Whiting, Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (1977) finds North American instances of "on the tapis" from as early as 1744:

On the Tapis {The following is a selection from 46 occurrences of the phrase} 1740 Belcher Papers 2.311: As I have such great affairs on the tapis here. 1773 Franklin Writings 6.89: Bringing it all upon the tapis. 1776 J[ohn] A[dams] in Adams FC 2.13: Great Things are on the Tapis. 1781 Oliver Origin 81: When the Stamp Act was on the Tapis, he encouraged the passing of it. ... 1783 *Washington Writings 26.187: It would ... be impolitic to introduce the Army on the Tapis. 1786 Jefferson Papers 9.137: The commercial Arrangements which are on the Tapis between France and England. 1789 Brown Power 2.21: If ... matrimony is really on the tapis. 1796 MCarey in Weems Letters 2.17: I believe it will be well to have four or five books on the tapis at once. 1807 Port Folio NS 4.414: In the future, instead of asking what is on the tapis, we must inquire, what is on the anvil {Five U.S. Senators were named Smith.} 1819 Adams Memoirs 4.417: Webster was again on the tapis for the appointment. 1819 Waln Hermit 92: To bring themselves sur le tapis. ... 1850 Cooper Letters 6.136: I have ... a bargain with the Hartford men on the tapis.

Charles Fennell, The Stanford Dictionary of Anglicized Words and Phrases (1892) pushes the phrase's English usage back to 1690 and argues that "on the tapis" originally had essentially the same sense as an idiom that is considerably more common today, "on the table":

tapis, sb.: Fr.: carpet, coverlet. The phr. on the tapis translates the Fr. sur le tapis (q.v.), = 'on the table-cloth' (of the table of a council-chamber), 'under discussion'. [Cited occurrences: 1690 Lord Churchill and lord Godolphin went away, and gave no votes in the matter which was upon the tapis: Lord Clarendon, Diary. {T.} 1698 the 57th Page, (where the Business of Swearing is upon the Tapis): Vanbrugh, Vind. Relapse, &c., p. 11. 1722 He speaks also of Other Proposals of This kind that were then upon the Tapis: Richardson, Statues, &c., in Italy, p. 258. 1732 At a time when a certain Affair was coming upon the Tapis: Gent. Mag., p. 565/1. 1750 bring the affair f the Prince of Conde upon the tapis: Lord Chesterfield, Letters, Vol. 2, No. 7, p. 24 (1774). 1784 When such subjects are on the tapis, they make me a very insipid correspondent: Hor[ace] Walpole, Letters, Vol. 8, p. 465 (1858). 1811 Great negociations are on the tapis: L.M. Hawkins, Countess, Vol. 1, p. 285 (2nd Ed.). 1819 It has been their present pleasure...to put on the tapis a matrimonial alliance: Scott, Bride of Lammermoor, ch.21, W[or]ks, Vol. 1 p. 1036/1 (1867). 1850 Mrs. Pincher is always putting her foot out, that all other ladies should be perpetually bringing theirs on the tapis: Thackeray, Pendennis, Vol. 1 ch. 21 p. 217 (1879). 1872 If a dance be on the tapis, great are the exertions to enlist, from far and near, the assistance of proficients in waltz and gallop: Edw[ard] Braddon, Life in India, ch. 5 p. 174.

Evidently "on the tapis" was a very well-known idiom for a long time, and it has evolved from a simple sense of "on the table" to something like "in the offing" or "under consideration." In the latter situations, the sense seems very closely akin to that of "on tap."

Jerry Spinrad's remarks about chess matches being characterized as "on the tapis" are supported by Elephind matches from as early as this one from "The Chess Congress," in the New-York Daily Tribune (November 3, 1857):

In the minor tournament Messrs. Homer and Solomons also made a draw, so that in both tournays the contestants stand one game apiece and two draws.

A match is on the tapis, in which Mr. Morphy will play single-handed against the five strongest amateurs of the New-York Chess Club in consultation.

I also find instances of horse races "on the tapis" from sources as early as 1829 in Australia and 1856 in the United States.

From "Port Macquarie," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Australian (April 15, 1829):

There's matter in this. A schism has occurred amongst the heads. The Wealthy Knight of Regentville, it is said, means to get up races on his own estate. Already, we learn, some good matches are on the tapis. There's one between Mr. Lawson's Spring-gun breed and Ben[?]elong. ... Without putting your hands in your pockets it's in vain to expect there will be stakes---and without the prize what is racing? It is like fish without sauce.

And from an item headed "Sports in New Jersey," in the New York Clipper (August 9, 1856):

A three-mile race is on the tapis between Joseph Griner's bay horse Jersey Lightning, and George Hooven's gray horse Old Milkey.

In the context of prize fighting, the first occurrences I've found are similarly old. From an untitled item in the [Sydney] Australian (February 20, 1829):

A private match is on the tapis, we hear, to be knocked up between two of our most notable Colonial prize fight men, with the toss up of a purse of £50 or so. It will be all private, so as that the "beaks" shall not get an inkling to spoil sport.

And from "Prize Fight," in the [San Francisco] Daily Alta California (April 30, 1851):

An encounter took place yesterday forenoon between two persons who are fond of practising the pugilistic art for a prize, in Happy Valley. It is understood to have been a very warmly contested fight and lasted a considerable length of time. The pugilist who won the prize had a hard task before him and did not leave the field in a very comfortable condition. It has been intimated that quite a number of these artistic rencontres are on the tapis, and the lovers of this science will have an excellent opportunity of gratifying their tastes.

"On the tapis" also shows up regularly in nineteenth-century descriptions of duels and matrimonial alliances.


Conclusion

Although I was completely unfamiliar with the idiom "on the tapis," it has appeared in English writing since from as long ago as 1690, and has been used in connection with such sporting events as horse races and boxing matches (in Australia) since at least 1829 and (in the United States) since at least the 1850s. Jerry Spinrad's suggestion that "on tap" in the sense of "coming up" may be a corruption of "on the tapis" seems quite plausible to me—particularly in view of its being used in sporting contexts where the meaning seems virtually interchangeable with "on tap" when the latter phrase began appearing late in the 1800s.

Although I'm unaware as yet of any definitive proof that "on tap" in the sense of "coming up" originated as "on the tapis," the connection between the two seems strong enough to render any other explanation of the idiom's origin uncertain.

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