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According to Macmillan "tap into" means "use" or "get some benefit":

tap or tap into [TRANSITIVE] if you tap something such as someone’s ability or a supply of information, you use it or get some benefit from it : Are you tapping your staff’s full potential?
Several other companies were already tapping this market.

Or tap into can mean "to understand and express something":

tap into something to understand and express something such as people’s beliefs or attitudes : the senator’s ability to tap into the American psyche

Considering the main meaning of tapping as "to touch someone or something gently", where do the above meanings for tap into come from?

  • 2
    This situation isn't uncommon with short "consonant-vowel-consonant" words, because we have so many of them, and we take them from so many different sources. They're two different words, with no direct etymological relationship (tap = strike gently is from echoic/onomatopoeic Middle English tappen, but tap = a plug or stopper is from Germanic/Old English tæppian). – FumbleFingers May 30 '15 at 16:54
  • The "main meaning" in this case is Def 3, not Def 1: to get a substance from a particular place or object – J.R. May 31 '15 at 9:09
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oxforddictionaries.com has this as the first definition of tap (n):

A device by which a flow of liquid or gas from a pipe or container can be controlled.

and for the verb,

Draw liquid through the tap or spout of (a cask, barrel, or other container)

When you tap a barrel of beer, you can get the beer out of it.

When you tap a certain kind of maple tree, you can get fluid out of it that can be used to make maple syrup.

The usage you refer to is based on this literal meaning of tap.

  • Interesting; does it work for all verbs? I mean, can the meaning be retraced the same way for other verbs? Because I've been kind of wondering the same as OP for some other verbs with particles such as "giving up" or "running out". – Linkyu May 31 '15 at 11:13
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Where "tap into" refers to accessing information or a conversation, often in an electronic context, it may be a relic from telephone landlines, where the phone engineer or secret agent, or the police connected a pair of wires (a "tap") to your telephone circuit.

They could listen in to your private conversation, so it has connotations of being slightly underhanded, (though the police would never do it without a warrant from a magistrate, would they?)

The second definition on the linked macmillan dictionary site follows this meaning - the senator has obviously gained some secret information by listening in.

"Taps" are still used on electrical circuits like long lines, delay lines, transformers

The term (in telephony) may have originated by analogy to putting a tap into a barrel.

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You are metaphorically inserting a pipeline into the subject, thus when you take from it- turning on the 'tap'- you are 'tapping in' to it.

You may also 'tap in' to an internet-based thing, which I've always assumed can be used as a pun: "The hacker 'tapped in' to the information using his keyboard..." ;)

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