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Don't tap that

I’m not quite sure how it came to pass in journalism that people selected for government appointments are almost invariably tapped, rather than chosen, named, or picked. I’ve always disliked the word myself, no doubt because of my distaste for college fraternities, which have traditionally used that verb to signify the selection of members.

Now, thanks mainly to the Young People, bless them all, I’ve got a reason in addition to frat-aversion to object. To tap in current vernacular—you knew this already, didn’t you?—means to engage in intercourse. It is commonly expressed as I’d tap that as, I suppose, a statement of admiration, but of the smarmy, derogatory admiration of the male reducing the female to her components. (Same contamination happened to booty.)

Last night I didn’t change an article that spoke of a woman being tapped for a federal post, but perhaps I should have. And in the future, I probably will.

But I’m not inflexible. I’ll raise no objection every spring when we run the stories on tapping the maple trees to make syrup.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:10 AM | | Comments (13)


LOL. When I started reading this I was thinking, "Oh boy... he must not know the 'modern' meaning" but I guess you do now. Contaminated term indeed. Also, this post reminds me of how my mom (in her 60s) has taken to saying "I'm down" to express her willingness to participate in something.

I can't help but think of that use of tap as a wrestling reference. I'm not much of an etymologist, or a wrestling fan, but that's what comes to mind.

My professor talked about the fluid nature of word meanings in Spanish class last week. Apparently I can be counted on for a good laugh by my ignorance of how words have changed since our textbook was published and of course the slang usage in select countries. I'm so happy that now I can be misunderstood in two languages. Obviously embarrassment in one was not enough for my steely self-esteem.

The xkcd comic strip addressed this at one point:

When you say "intercourse," you mean the sexual kind, right? Just so we're clear.

I wasn't talking about traveling to Pennsylvania.

I don’t mean to offend the sensibilities of this forum, but I’d like to ask about a language point, even though it requires consideration of matters usually not discussed here: when I have heard the contemporary use of “tap,” I have thought of it as being based on a rough analogy (very rough, because the flow is backwards) to the physical principles involved in tapping maple trees (and, more to the point, beer kegs). Does that seem plausible?

Don, we're all grown-ups here, mostly.

You're exactly right, I think, about the connotations of to tap. Tapping maple sap for syrup involves inserting a spile into the tree, and tapping a keg means broaching it. Thus the vulgarity and offensiveness of the expression.

I was thinking it was a gentler form of "I'd hit that," which, I think, means the same thing.

Hmm.......... brings an entirely new meaning, and dimension to the dying art of 'tap' dancing, don't it? We all recall that grinding, thigh-to-thigh dance craze from the early '90s, the lambada---"the forbidden dance". I call it 'the-get-a-room' dance. HA!

As a fairly astute student of the contemporary modern (post-modern?) art scene, and an active professional artist, I couldn't help conjuring up from the more seamier recesses of my memory a disturbing series of bizarre performance art 'happenings' by controversial L.A. artist/ professor Paul McCarthy.

One in particular from the early '90s (1992?) that I've metaphorically conflated in my mind as a melding of our younger generation's notion of the verb "tap" as intercourse, and Prof. McI. explication of the term "tap" as it relates to basically affixing a spigot-like device (spile) into a maple tree trunk to extract sap, which eventually breaks down into scrumptious maple syrup after major stirring and boiling.

Paul McCarthy's installation piece, "The Garden", actually depicts human-scale animatronic life-size puppet figures simulating various sexual 'activities' w/ sundry sculpted objects-in-nature, including a long-sleeve-shirted man (puppet) sans trousers, or underwear, literally 'tapping' a large coniferous tree trunk........... and not for maple syrup. I could throw in a 'woodie' joke here, but it would be far too easy........ and lame. HA!

Frankly, after seeing a video of this weird McCarthy 'performance' piece, i never did look at Aunt Jemima's maple syrup w/ quite the same anticipatory ardor.

Triple stack of the buttermilk w/ bananas and walnuts, and please, hold the maple syrup. HA!

Apologies, if I weirded out some of you folks w/ my slightly graphic description of that 'performance' piece. As they say, one man's art might be another man's garbage.


P.S.: ------ Prof. McI., maybe you weren't "talking about traveling to Pennsylvania", but rather traveling-the-Appalachian-Trail' a la that deceitful philanderer, the disgraced former governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford? Don't cry for me Argentina. HA!

It's sufficient to excise "tap" for not being precise, catchy or clever when many other words will convey the meaning and are designed to do so.
Still, "bad writing" isn't enough to sway most people, and these arguments are most welcome.

P.S. I've also sometimes neglected to change "tap," but I'll surely have this in mind next time I see ti.

the first place i ever heard the vulgar sense of "tap" was the 1993 movie "fear of a black hat" (a hip-hop knockoff of "this is spinal tap"), in a music video for a song that makes liberal use of it in the chorus.

i would imagine that this sense of the word predates the movie, but the video certainly takes pains to utilize the tapping of a keg as a visual metaphor, and i've always believed that the filmmakers were more likely to be aware of the word's true etymology than i was.

i also feel obligated to point out that "taps" is narrower than "chooses," "names" or "picks." that distinction alone makes it apropos in a number of display-copy situations.

I'd never heard of "tap" used as the verb to select for office, nor have I heard it in the vulgar sense. But this does remind me that I have noticed "pick" appearing in British English as the noun meaning a selection for office. I'm usually wrong about this sort of thing, but I think we used to say "choice". We do have "pick" as a noun, but normally in set phrases like "take your pick" or "pick of the bunch". I suspect we were infected with your sense of "pick" while reading all the hoohah about who would be Obama's pick for Secretary of State, and it then emerged in British media when Cameron formed his coalition Cabinet.

My exposure to adolescent vulgarity has, happily, declined almost to zero, so it may well be that tap is word of the day on British streets. I shall try not to listen.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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