The words "spoken for" have an idiomatic meaning referring to things or people which have been "taken" in some sense. Cambridge Dictionary defines spoken for:

If something is spoken for, it is not available because someone has already bought or asked for it

old-fashioned If someone is spoken for, they are not available for a romantic relationship because they are already having one with someone else

I haven't been able to find information on the phrase's origin. It's difficult to judge an NGram of this pair of words, since the phrase "spoken for" can have other meanings besides this idiomatic sense. But a glance at the results suggests at least that the pair of words have been commonly used together for centuries.

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It seems to me like an odd construction to refer to something or someone that (or who) has been taken and is no longer available. How did this pair of words come to take on such a specific meaning in English?

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    One of the senses of the nowadays rarely used verb bespeak is {M-W} << bespeak bespoke bespoken; bespeaking: transitive verb 1: to hire, engage, or claim beforehand (emphasis mine)>>. I'm guessing that the 'spoken for' idiom comes via 'this horse is bespoken ... this horse is bespoken for'. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 10 '17 at 20:53
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    @SpehroPefhany The sense of custom design is really the only way that "bespoke" is nowadays used. Though personally I am quite prepared to use it in the sense of "It bespeaks a sorry state of affairs when the governing party in Britain is dependent on the votes of the DUP". – WS2 Jun 10 '17 at 22:08
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    Bible, King James Version, Song of Solomon 8:8 "We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for?" Indeed, old-fashioned; women as property. – Xanne Jun 10 '17 at 22:58
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    I don't believe that Ngram says anything really significant, the results would also include phrases such as: "he has spoken for several hours on… " and "they haven't spoken for (in) years" and "Nobody has spoken for XYZ" etc. Where's the link by the way? – Mari-Lou A Jun 11 '17 at 8:06
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The relevant OED entry (with citations), at: "speak, v. ... Etymology: Old English sprecan (past tense spræc, sprǽcon, past participle gesprecen..."

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OED entry should be antedated. @Xanne pointed to the King James Bible, "when she shall be spoken for?" which reads thus in the 1611 text: "We haue a litle sister, and shee hath no breasts: what shall we doe for our sister, in the day when she shall bee spoken for?"

Even earlier, it's found in the Wycliffe Bible (1382 to 1395): Our sister is little, and hath no teats; what shall we do to our sister, in the day when she shall be spoken to? [Early Version] Our sister is little, or young, and she hath no breasts; what shall we do for our sister, on the day when she shall be spoken for? [Late Version]

  • The OED also has bespeak, v. : Meaning 5. a. To speak for; to arrange for, engage beforehand; to ‘order’ (goods). 1582 R. Stanyhurst tr. Virgil First Foure Bookes Æneis ii. 43 Theare doe lye great kingdooms..bespoken For the. 1688 in H. Ellis Orig. Lett. Eng. Hist. ii. 367. IV. 143 The six thousand pair of Shoes which he bispoke at Exeter. 1793 J. Smeaton Narr. Edystone Lighthouse (ed. 2) §255 A new set of chains was bespoke. 1839 T. De Quincey 2nd Paper on Murder in Blackwood's Mag. Nov. 661/2 My correspondent may have..bespoke a murder. – Xanne Jun 11 '17 at 3:48
  • Ha! Just finished looking at that, as you were editing your post :-) But it's not quite comparable -- where "for" appears in the instances above, it's "bespoken for + NOUN", so nothing like the (earlier and more extensive) examples with "spoken for" as a strong collocation. So I don't think there's a case for seeing "spoken for" emerging from "bespeak" as opposed to directly from "speak". Maybe even the opposite -- BESPOKE 5a appearing as an alternative to the already-existing "spoken for". – Robin Hamilton Jun 11 '17 at 4:09
  • And of course, as your earlier noting of the KJV demonstrated, there are manifest gaps in the OED's coverage of the term(s). – Robin Hamilton Jun 11 '17 at 4:15
  • You might want to incorporate the Biblical "spoken for" in your answer, and bespeak/bespoken applying to everything from lodging to shoes to chains to murder; and the current romantic uses, as well as bespoken tailored suits (lots of that around), and usage spilling over to other goods (Tesla model 3's, some cynical uses). – Xanne Jun 11 '17 at 7:57
  • The biblical quotation you claim should antedate the quotations for sense 3 is used to attest the earlier sense 2, where the publication edition is dated, accurately, 1560. You make no argument against the use to attest sense 2, but clearly the quote doesn't attest both senses. I suggest you consider temporal nuances. – JEL Jun 11 '17 at 17:00

OED does provide what, absent another offer, must be considered the most comprehensive historical account of the development of the phrase 'to speak for' through various nuances of meaning...up to and beyond the sense of "taken" (equivalent to 'engaged' used in the sense of "secure[d] (something) for one's own or another's use or possession").

Sense 1 of 'to speak for' is

To make a speech or plea in place of or on behalf of (a person); in later use esp. to plead for. Also, to make representations concerning (a thing). speak for yourself: expressing a desire to dissociate oneself from what another has just said or the assumptions behind it.

OED being a historical dictionary, sense 1 is sense 1 because it is the earliest attested sense of the phrase the OED scholars found. It is first attested sometime before (a) 1300:

a 1300 K. Horn 171 Hor[n] spak for hem alle.

Observing the "in later use esp. to plead for" nuance noted in the definition of sense 1, a later attestation evidences that development:

1535 Bible (Coverdale) 2 Kings iv. 13 Hast thou eny matter to be spoken for to the kynge?

That "later use" itself exposes the source of the development of the nuance captured in sense 2:

To beg or request; to ask for.

This nuance is attested first with

1560 Bible (Geneva) Song of Sol. viii. 8 What shal we do for our sister..when she shalbe spoken for?

Note the sequence of dates. Sense 1 is first attested a 1300; one nuance of that sense, attested 1535, develops into sense 2, attested 1560. Sense 2, then, develops further, as attested by two additional quotes for sense 2:

1594 J. Lyly Mother Bombie i. iii. sig. B3, They giue vs pap with a spoon before we can speak, and when wee speake for that wee loue, pap with a hatchet.
1608 Shakespeare King Lear iv. 240 The shame it selfe doth speake for instant remedie.

Through use and repetition, sense 2 develops another distinct nuance, represented in the definition of sense 3:

To order; to bespeak; to engage.

The development of this sense is also plainly traced in the attestations provided:

Ordered, in the mercantile sense:
a1688 J. Bunyan Israel's Hope Encouraged in Wks. (1855) I. 583 As your great traders do with the goods that their chapmen have either bought or spoke for.
1730 N. Bailey et al. Dictionarium Britannicum at Bespeak, To speak for something; to give order for it to be made.

1816 J. Austen Emma I. xv. 273 The bell was rung, and the carriages spoken for.
1859 H. B. Stowe Minister's Wooing xii. 115 Three months beforehand, all her days and nights are spoken for.

Engaged [= Taken]:
1943 Sun (Baltimore) 25 Feb. 6/1 (advt.) We hope to preserve even more food this year. But well over half of this season's pack is already spoken for by the Government.
1971 Petticoat 17 July 29/2 He's not married, but he's involved, as they say, spoken for, and has lived with his girlfriend in London for the last few years.

From sense 3, the more abstract sense 4, "To indicate; to betoken", first attested in 1832, develops. Sense 5 is a parallel line of development for 'to speak for yourself' into the more abstract "to speak for itself, to be significant or self-evident", first attested 1779.

The OED's ancestry story of the phrasal verb ('to speak for') is not the complete or final word. Hairs may be split over the nuances of meaning representing the development of the phrase; such arguments would have to be supported with a detailed analysis of the context of the attestations given, and might also involve other attestations not shown in the OED story. Nonetheless, without significant work essentially retracing work already undertaken and completed by previous scholars, the OED's story is likely to be the best on offer.

  • There are 11 instances of "speke for" included in the OED, of which only one appears above. (I chose this particular form simply because it limits the dataset.) This suggests the degree of selectivity involved when the material contained in the OED is digested into an entry. An exploration of the nuances of the form would involve dumping the editorial judgements as to meaning and going directly to the entire range of citations -- in this instance, Advanced Search: "speke" NEAR (immediately followed by) "for": – Robin Hamilton Jun 11 '17 at 10:51
  • c1380 Sir Ferumbras (MED), Þe Ameral..prauncede & blew as he were wod, & miȝt noȝt speke for his heȝe mod. 1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) Acts xxvi. 1 It is suffrid to thee, for to speke for thi silf. a1393 Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) v. l. 2357 Ate laste thei acorde..her tale to recorde, To what issue thei be falle, A kniht schal speke for hem alle. 1393 Langland Piers Plowman C. vii. 433 Ich can nouht speke for shame The vylenye of my foule mouþe and of my foule mawe. ?a1400 Morte Arth. 270, I myght noghte speke for spytte, so my herte trymblyde! CONTINUES – Robin Hamilton Jun 11 '17 at 10:57
  • The OED is both better and worse than @Jel suggests above -- better, because there's actually more material available than any specific entry provides; worse, because the editorial definitions and, particularly, discrimination between senses, are much less reliable than he suggests. That said, and caveats aside, his unfolding of the term was exceptionally illuminating. – Robin Hamilton Jun 11 '17 at 11:05

On spoken for in the sense of a romantic relationship:

The Biblical verse, Solomon 8:8, "what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for?" is cited in books on the Bible and is the main early source of Google NGrams when the search term is "she is spoken for" (case insensitive).

The OED includes a definition of speak v. 1g: To propose marriage, with references from Shakespeare's Othello through the following, which suggests that "spoken for" requires that the proposal has been accepted:

1964 M. Laski in S. Nowell-Smith Edwardian Eng. iv. 198 An interval might have been found—perhaps in the conservatory, perhaps on a sofa in a dark nook under the stairs— when he had spoken and she accepted.

The more recent NGram hits on "she is spoken for" are in romantic novels--some of which might be called "bodice rippers"--e.g., in Jessica Sims Wanted: Wild Thing, "She is not yours to touch, friend. She is spoken for."

"is spoken for" produces more NGram hits, but many are false positives.

Google NGram "she is spoken for"

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