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Touch and go

Q From Peter Rugg: How did touch and go come to mean dangerous or unsettled? Is there any connection with touch-and-go practice landings in a plane?

A I know the training method that you mention as circuits and bumps. The pilot lands but instead of stopping he takes off again and makes a circuit of the airport to repeat the action. This sense of touch and go does have a link to the origin of the idiom, though that is centuries earlier.

The first meaning on record is of dealing with some matter merely glancingly or momentarily (in the British sense of something that happens for a very short time): to merely touch on it and at once go on to something else. The earliest recorded user is Hugh Latimer, the Protestant martyr who was burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1555 alongside Nicholas Ridley. He preached a sermon in front of Edward VI in 1549: “As this texte dothe ryse I wyl touche and go, a lytel in euery parte, vntyl I come vnto to muche.” His meaning is roughly that as he develops his argument, he will first briefly mention his main themes before expanding on each. The same idea of brevity appeared in a couplet the following century:

Madam, I’m gone, no wonder, for you know,
Lovers encounters are but touch and go.

The English Rogue, by Richard Head, 1665. There’s no possessive apostrophe in lovers because the punctuation mark wasn’t then in use.

Two separate strands of development in meaning began to appear in the written record at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

One seems to have come out of literature and the theatre — at least, the first examples relate to those arenas. This is the earliest:

There is an art in writing for the Theatre, technically called touch and go, which is indispensible when we consider the small quantum of patience, which so motley an assemblage as a London audience can be expected to afford.

Rejected Addresses, by H Smith and J Smith, 1812. Theatre audiences at the time had a notoriously short attention span.

Touch and go here means being so brief as to be utterly superficial, so it’s easy to understand how it could have evolved from the sense that Bishop Latimer knew. It was later used of men who were so casual or careless in their actions that they were thought to be unreliable or untrustworthy. The 1913 edition of John Camden Hotten’s slang dictionary noted that touch and go referred to men “with whom business arrangements should be of the lightest possible character”, presumably at the end of a bargepole. A few modern dictionaries still include the superficiality sense, but I’ve never come across it and presume it is no longer current.

The other sense that appeared is our current one of a precarious, unpredictable or risky situation whose outcome is uncertain. “It was touch and go whether he would survive the operation.” There are two possible sources on record for it.

One was given by Hotten in the first edition of his dictionary in 1859 as a coaching term: “The old jarveys [coachmen, thought to derive from the personal name Jervis], to shew their skill, used to drive against things so close as absolutely to touch, yet without injury. This they called a toucher, or, touch and go, which was hence applied to anything which was within an ace of ruin.”

The other appears in nautical contexts and was summed up by Admiral William Smyth in The Sailor’s Word-book in 1865: “Said of anything within an ace of ruin; as in rounding a ship very narrowly to escape rocks, &c, or when, under sail, she rubs against the ground with her keel, without much diminution of her velocity.” The latter sense is recorded from the beginning of the nineteenth century. One Admiralty court case in 1817 noted that a temporary touching of the keel on the sea floor “has been vulgarly described” as a touch and go, which suggests that it had even then been in the language for some time as sailors’ jargon.

Which of these is the true origin, if either, is unknowable in the present state of the etymological art. But both are based on the same idea of momentary contact that exists in the aeronautical touch and go.

Page created 21 Jul. 2012

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Last modified: 21 July 2012.