verbal tic?
July 23, 2007 11:20 AM   Subscribe

Where does the usage of "speaks to" to mean "speaks about" or "speaks of" come from. For example, "It speaks to our will to be goverened that we allow these things to happen"? Characters on Boston Legal are constantly using it also. It speaks to my frustration that I've not been able to find anything on its etymology on google.
posted by merocet to Writing & Language (18 answers total)
Best answer: The meaning is different. "Speaks to" means "appeals to", whereas "speaks about" would mean "concerns" and "speaks of" would mean "talks about."

In the example you give, the speakers is saying that whatever she's talking about appeals to all of our wills to be governed, not that she's talking about our will to be governed.
posted by occhiblu at 11:34 AM on July 23, 2007

You know, I think I may be wrong on that, because that would make your example totally weird.... maybe there used to be a distinction and now it's slipping?
posted by occhiblu at 11:35 AM on July 23, 2007

Hm... is this a new idiom to you, or are you trying to scratch a long-standing itch that this show just reminded you of? I'm guessing the former since you call it a verbal 'tic'. Anyway, in case it's the former, I think you're interpreting this idiom just a bit wrong.

When [fact A] "speaks to" [phenomenon B], fact A doesn't merely speak "of" or "about" B, it reinforces B, amplifies it, or provides evidence of its existence. A much better synonym is "supports" rather than "speaks of" or "about." It's not a tic, it's a different usage of the word speaks, if you want to look at it that way.

Other than that, sorry I can't provide help on etymology or anything. Also, sorry if you already knew all that, your phrasing just kind of left it ambiguous.
posted by rkent at 11:37 AM on July 23, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, occhiblu "appeals to" makes sense of some of the examples I've heard. Is it a recent thing or has it been around for ages and I've just got hypersensitive to it? Still like to know where it comes from...
posted by merocet at 11:39 AM on July 23, 2007

Best answer: Oh hey, I just discovered that the place I'm staying has a compact OED! Turns out the "speak to -" usage is definition 13 of "speak", and the usage goes back to at least 1624.
posted by rkent at 11:44 AM on July 23, 2007

Consider: "This book really speaks to children".. is that usage unfamiliar to you? I've certainly heard this sort of usage here in the UK (although only in semi-formal contexts, never within my family, etc) since I was young.
posted by wackybrit at 11:47 AM on July 23, 2007

I also just looked it up and one of the definitions of "speak" as a verb is "to be appealing."
posted by wackybrit at 11:49 AM on July 23, 2007

Response by poster: Hi wackybrit, I have heard that usage but never connected it so completely with "appeals", more that it "communicates well with". Guess I must have missed a day at school!
posted by merocet at 12:00 PM on July 23, 2007

Best answer: There are actually 10 different meanings of "speak to" in the Oxford English Dictionary Online's entry for "speak", some of which date to before 1000; here's a use from around 1250, in a passage from the Old Testament, presumably from an early manuscript of the Bible in an older form of English: After ðis* spac god to abram. So "speak to" in a "speak to me!" sense has been around for a while.

Your meaning looks like it comes along later, around the beginning of the 1600s. Here are some of the etymologies, specifically those listed as definitions 14e and 14f under the entry "speak", which seem to fit most closely with your meaning (listed by year, author/speaker in capitals, title of work, and then the citation itself):

14e: To treat of or deal with, to discuss or comment on, (a subject) in speech or writing.
1610 J. DOVE Advt. Seminaries 42, I desire them speake to these foure points. 1637 HEYLIN Answ. Burton 78, For your charges,..I meane to take order, and speake as briefely to them, as you would desire. 1662 STILLINGFL. Orig. Sacræ II. vi. §4 Though it be a subject little spoken to either by Jewish or Christian Writers. 1706 STANHOPE Paraphr. III. 555 Part of this Scripture hath already been spoken to. 1724 SWIFT Drapier's Lett. Wks. 1755 V. II. 110 A lawyer, who speaks to a cause, when the matter hath been almost exhausted by those who spoke before. 1778 EARL MALMESBURY Diaries & Corr. I. 166 Unprepared as he was for such a proposition, he could not, he said, off-hand, speak to it accurately. 1869 Daily News 28 Apr., The report..was spoken to by the Most Rev. Chairman..and the Bishop of Derry. 1880 Ibid. 19 Mar. 2/3, I wish to call your allegation, and I shall endeavour to speak to it.
14f: To give (or constitute[though this usage is now obsolete]) evidence regarding (a thing); to attest, bear testimony to.
1624 BP. R. MONTAGU Immed. Addr. 201 [These] speake indeed to the practise since it was in beginning. 1774 MITFORD Ess. Harmony Lang. 195 From the antient Greeks I know of nothing speaking to the sound of the diphthong ου. 1776 Trial Nundocomar 65/2, I cannot speak to the motions of the army. 1817 JAS. MILL Brit. India III. ii. 85 The witness was not allowed to speak to the consultation of that day. 1825 HAZLITT Spirit of Age 227 This is a nice criticism, and we cannot speak to its truth. 1888 Times (weekly ed.) 2 Nov. 22/4 [He] asked that witnesses might be called to speak to his character.
*ð = eth/edh, an old way of transcribing a "th" sound.

On preview, dammit, rkent!
posted by mdonley at 12:04 PM on July 23, 2007

The OED has seven definitions of "speak to," including "transf. or fig.; esp. to appeal to, to influence, affect, or touch." The first quotation is from Othello. But with respect to occhiblu, I do not think "appeals to" is the best definition for the sense I think is being talked about here.

One of the other definitions is "To give (or constitute) evidence regarding (a thing); to attest, bear testimony to." As rkent points out, this dates to at least 1624.

On preview, I'm going to delete the big blockquote with quotations I had here because mdonley just posted it. Damn it, mdonley!
posted by grouse at 12:09 PM on July 23, 2007

Personal data point here: The way I interpret it, the phrase "speaks to" connotes a relationship between two things...the thing doing the "speaking", and the thing being "spoken for". One guess is that it arose from the literally-intended phrase "So-and-so is speaking to/speaks to So-and-so" and then extended to a (SORRY IN ADVANCE, brace yourselves!) metaphorical usage.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:10 PM on July 23, 2007

But with respect to occhiblu, I do not think "appeals to" is the best definition for the sense I think is being talked about here.

Yep, I agree. I was thinking of usages like, "This movie really speaks to our desire for love and connection," and only realized on rereading the question that the example given was a bit different.
posted by occhiblu at 12:13 PM on July 23, 2007

This is something I've noticed too, starting only 10 or 15 years ago, and it irks me. Usage of the term may date back a ways but I'm certain it's only lodged in the common lexicon that recently, along with so many other unnecessary, or redundant, or faintly pompous bits of business-speak.
The way I've heard it used most often is at meetings, or sort of official discussions, when someone will pipe up something like "I can speak to that issue...", as if this preface will somehow lend more weight to what they re about to say.
posted by Flashman at 12:25 PM on July 23, 2007

In Flashman's example, and in the example in the original question, I think part of the implication is that someone who is "speaking to" an issue is not attempting to exhaustively cover the entire issue, just to present some points in that general direction.

So, "Allowing these things to happen speaks to our will to be governed" would imply that other things also present evidence of this tendency. "I can speak to that issue" implies that I can give some of background or reasoning behind it, but there are probably other concerns as well. I think it emphasizes that the examples or insights given are only part of the whole picture, that the speaker can only begin to point his or her listeners in the right general direction.

(Which is not to say that it's always the best construction for what people are actually trying to say.)
posted by occhiblu at 1:00 PM on July 23, 2007

It's definitely corporatespeak where I work, and it means the same as "talk about" or "respond to". In a meeting if someone asks a question, someone else will surely say "I can speak to that" and then supply the answer.

And it bugs the living daylights out of me.
posted by emelenjr at 1:45 PM on July 23, 2007

Response by poster: Glad it's not just me that it bugs! Next week, "In terms of...".

Thanks to all for the answers.
posted by merocet at 2:38 PM on July 23, 2007

I've noticed its recent prevalence as well, and I agree that the sense is somewhat different from what occhiblu is talking about in her first comment. One of my coworkers uses it incessantly to mean "speaks of" - "the appearance of Bee Balm in this garden speaks to the colonists' boycott of English tea products" or "these native strawberries speak to the common heritage the Abenaki and early Yankees shared." Drives me nuts; I'm interested to note that the usage may have been around a long time, but it's definitely becoming more common.

The other one that strikes my ear in a similar way is "to where," or "it gets to where," as in "We offer a lot of programs, to where it's hard to pick the one you want to do."
posted by Miko at 3:19 PM on July 23, 2007

I think you're hearing it on Boston Legal because it's been used in US courtroom shows for a very long time. I think it's lawyer-speak, at least on TV.
posted by genghis at 5:50 PM on July 23, 2007

« Older Where can I buy a Knirps umbrella in NYC?   |   Help me find a platform for new video/blogging... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.