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The meaning and origin of the expression: Touch and go

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Touch and go


A risky, precarious or delicate case or state of things - such that the slightest change could prove disastrous.


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'Touch and go' is a highly unusual expression in English in that it has developed with several different meanings. The one given above is the most commonly used but, as the meanings lead us to the origins, let's list the variations first.

- Briefly touch on something and then go on to something else.

- Involving rapid or careless execution - "Noel Coward wrote many touch and go witticisms."

- A precarious situation, one in which a small deviation could cause calamity - "He almost didn't make it through his heart operation, it was touch and go for a while."

These meanings may differ but they do have a common structure - each version is of the form 'something is briefly the object of attention and then some action is taken'.

Note: There are other meanings of 'touch and go' too but, as they are later and can't lay claim to being the origin of the expression, I'll just list them briefly and move on - touch and go as Latimer (below) might have said:

- The name of a form of flying exercise where a plane is landed and then takes off again for another practice landing. This is known in the UK as 'circuits and bumps'.

- The name of a person of grumpy disposition and hasty temper.

The early uses of each meaning of the expression give some clues as to whether they came about independently or whether they come from a common source.

The first time 'touch and go' is known to have appeared in print is in Seven Sermons Before Edward VI, published in 1869, which is a record of sermons preached to the young king by the English cleric Hugh Latimer in 1549:

As the text doth ryfe, I wyl touch and go a lyttle in every place, vntyl I come into much. I wyl touch al the forfyed things, but not to muche.

[As points arise I will refer to each of them briefly and elaborate later. I will refer to all the previous items but only in passing.]

Touch and goThe meaning there is clear, Latimer declaring his intention to touch on the things he intended to say and then to enlarge on them later. That's not unlike the present day mantra given to speechmakers - 'you tell them what you are going to tell them, then you tell them, then you tell them again'. Assuming that the 1869 publication was a faithful record of what Latimer said then the 'briefly touching on something' meaning is where 'touch and go' started.

The Seven Sermons is quite a thick book and not exactly a laugh a minute. Edward VI was only eleven at the time so he must have had some considerable patience to sit through Latimer's exhaustively long and repetitious preachings. His successor Mary I was less accommodating to Latimer and had him burned at the stake in 1555.

The second and third meanings both arose in the early 19th century. The 'careless execution' meaning was associated especially with the theatre and is first known from Horatio Smith and James Smith's Rejected Addresses, 1812:

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

This version of the expression seems to be built around the notion that theatrical sketches and skits could be improvised and thrown off with little effort. This parallels the modern day expression 'good enough for government work'. This meaning can be seen as a development of the earlier 'Latimer' meaning. It alludes to something being given scant attention.

The more common 'precarious situation' meaning followed soon after, in a letter taken from the memoirs of the Scottish clergyman Ralph Wardlaw, published in 1815:

'Twas touch and go - but I got my seat.

Touch and goIt isn't easy to see how this 'precarious' meaning could have been a development from the previous versions - there doesn't seem to be any connection. In fact, there wasn't. This meaning came about as an allusion to ships or stage-coaches giving a glancing blow, to the seabed or to the wheels of other coaches respectively, before continuing their journey. To collide might mean disaster but a mere touch meant a narrow escape and the ship/coach could continue to 'go'. This was explained by Admiral W. H. Smyth in his Sailor's Word-book, 1867:

Touch-and-go, 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.

So, the first use of 'touch and go' was by Hugh Latimer but he didn't mean what we now understand the expression to mean; for that we have to look to the era of stage-coaches and sailing ships. This will be welcome news to the members of CANOE - the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything.

See also: Phrases with a nautical origin

No laughing matter - also associated with Hugh Latimer.