May 13, 2004

Phrase Origins: Touch and Go

Yesterday evening, Joe Castiglione was interviewing Terry Francona about a previous Red Sox game. Castiglione described the game as “touch and go” and Francona chimed in at that point saying it was “more touch than go.”

Often, people will pull apart an idiomatic phrase and mangle it. I think this happens even more often than usual in sports interviews.

“More touch than go?” It sounded like he meant it was leaning toward the worse side of the equation for most of the game. I realized that I wasn’t aware of the original context of “touch and go” and maybe Francona was using it correctly, and maybe he was just mangling it with some sports-interview license (a fairly lax license).

There are three meanings I’ve heard for “touch and go” which were not just idiomatic.

First, I have heard the phrase used to describe a dangerous plane landing. If a plane is coming in too fast, or something else is wrong, it will make a “touch and go” — touching the runway and then going off again. The figurative meaning of the phrase is “a potentially dangerous, even disastrous situation.” A plane crash is a considerable disaster, so this appeared to be a valid origin.

However, there are two nautical suggested origins that likely predate the advent of air travel.

In one origin, “touch and go” refers to a ship’s keel touching the bottom briefly, and avoiding getting stuck. It’s a “touch and go” situation because no one wants to be stranded.

A second explanation is that ships long ago would sometimes have occasion to meet up and exchange cargoes and supplies. The ships would have to touch to make a transfer. That is an extremely dangerous situation. When they are done, off they go on their separate ways.

It seems likely that one of the two latter explanations is correct. But which one? Maybe it’s both. Does anyone have access to better phrase origin information? I’d like to know which is the correct origin.

Back to the Red Sox manager: What he said actually makes some sense. The “touch” part is the dangerous part of “touch and go” as far as I can tell. I can only guess whether that’s what he meant or whether he just got lucky with that turn of phrase.

Posted by James at May 13, 2004 2:30 AM
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My sister is Director, World Languages: Marketing and ESL Publishing at Houghton Mifflin Co., so I have on hand a copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms for Students of English, put together by her group.

The entry for "touch and go" states:

"Extremely uncertain or risky, as in 'It was touch and go after the surgery; we were not sure he would survive,' or 'It was touch and go, but they finally gave me a seat on the plane.' This idiom implies that a simple touch may cause a disaster."

Posted by: Patti M. at May 13, 2004 11:46 AM

Thanks for this entry... i followed a link from dreaming in denmark and i'm enjoying your journal. really loved the investigation you provide into this phrase. nothing makes me smile more than learning more about words/writing... well, that's an exaggeration. i like other stuff more. but not much more.


Posted by: christine at May 22, 2004 8:39 PM

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