Michael Quinion at World Wide Words has a post on the phrase touch and go which, after explaining the obsolete sense 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,” goes on to the competing possibilities for the modern one (“a precarious, unpredictable or risky situation whose outcome is uncertain”):

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.

My wife and I are in the middle of Patrick O’Brian’s The Thirteen-Gun Salute, where we’ve just been through a harrowing example of what Smyth describes. (Via Stan at Sentence first.)


  1. Odd that both definitions use the phrase within an ace of ruin. I presume that ace here means the one-spot on a die rather than the card. I associate the phrase with team races either afoot or in the water: when you touch the next team member, they go.

  2. > “[…] momentarily (in the British sense of something that happens for a very short time) […]”
    This seems to be an interesting use of the phrase “British sense”. I normally take that to mean roughly “a sense that isn’t prevalent in the U.S.”; but in this case it apparently means “the sole sense that occurs in Britain” (unless Quinion has been led somehow to believe that Americans use “momentarily” only when we mean “in a moment”).

  3. @John, this was also discussed at World Wide Words:

    Krister Rollins and Jim Hart asked about the expression within an ace of ruin which turned up twice within quotations in the piece last week on touch and go. Ruin doesn’t seem to fit with ace because we often think of the latter as meaning highly skilled or exceptional (tennis players scoring aces, fighter pilot aces and so on). However, the word derives from the Latin as for a single thing or unit, hence the playing card, which nominally has a value of one (the shift in most games to its being the most valuable card led to ace taking on its mantle of excellence). In a separate development, the low value of ace led for a while to associations with the smallest possible amount or a tiny portion, and hence to worthlessness or misfortune; there may perhaps have been a nod to as also being a Roman copper coin of small value. Within an ace of meant “within a hair’s breadth” with connotations of disaster only just averted.

  4. P G Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster uses the expression “as near as a toucher” many times. It means “very nearly”, but not always with reference to bad things. Googling also reveals that Dickens uses it at least twice.

  5. Since this thread has gone quiet, will you allow me to go O/T, Hat. I’ve just looked at the blurb for “Is that a Fish in Your Ear?” and have found “The Ancient Greeks took no notice of anything unless it was said in Greek; the Romans made everyone speak Latin …”
    But the Romans were perfectly happy that their richest and most populous provinces spoke Greek. What are the qualifications for being a blurb writer?

  6. Lars Mathiesen says

    as absolutely to touch — didn’t that obsolete use of absolutely figure in another thread recently?

  7. Andrew D. says

    I note for the curious that an aviation “touch and go” has no sense of peril. It’s convenient while practicing landings to take off immediately after touching down, while still moving forward, rather than taxiing back to the threshold of the runway for another static takeoff.

  8. Rodger C says

    I’ve at least once seen some official use “touchy-feely” for the modern sense of “touch and go.” Eww.

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