touch and go


touch-and-go (idiom)
/ˌtʌtʃ ən ˈɡoʊ/


  • precarious or delicate in nature, uncertain, and risky.
  • describing a situation where success or failure is highly uncertain.
  • fraught with danger or uncertainty, where the outcome is doubtful or precarious.
  • a maneuver in aviation where an aircraft lands and takes off again without coming to a full stop.

Usage Note

The phrase “touch-and-go” can be used both as an adjective and a noun, describing uncertain, risky situations or specific aviation maneuvers, respectively.

Example Sentences

  1. The patient’s condition was touch-and-go after the surgery.
  2. It was touch-and-go whether they would finish the project on time.
  3. The rescue operation was touch-and-go due to the worsening weather conditions.
  4. After the car accident, his recovery was touch-and-go for several days.
  5. The pilot practiced touch-and-go landings during training.

Origin and History

The idiom “touch-and-go” has a rich and varied history, with multiple theories and beliefs regarding its origin. It has evolved through various contexts, including theological, literary, nautical, and everyday usage. Its meanings have ranged from brief, superficial engagements to precarious situations where disaster is narrowly avoided. This rich tapestry of origins highlights the phrase’s flexibility and enduring relevance across centuries.

Early Usage and Theological Origins

The earliest recorded use of “touch-and-go” dates back to a sermon preached by Hugh Latimer before King Edward VI in 1549. Latimer used the phrase to mean dealing with a matter briefly and moving on quickly:

“As the text doth ryse, I wyl touch and go a lyttle in every place, vntyl I come into much.”

The above usage indicated a brief, superficial engagement with a topic.

Literary and Theatrical Origins

In the early 19th century, the phrase took on a different connotation within the realm of theater and literature. In Horatio and James Smith’s “Rejected Addresses” (1812), the term was used to describe a technique in writing for the theater that required brief and superficial treatment to cater to the audience’s limited attention span. This literary usage suggests a transition from dealing with topics briefly to a more general notion of superficiality.

Nautical and Coaching Origins

Another significant origin theory comes from the nautical world. According to Admiral William Smyth’s “The Sailor’s Word-Book” (1867), “touch-and-go” described a ship narrowly avoiding disaster by just touching a rock or seabed before continuing on its way. This nautical usage underscores the concept of a precarious situation where a ship narrowly avoids disaster.

Similarly, in the world of stagecoaches, “touch-and-go” referred to a skillful maneuver by coachmen who would drive close to obstacles without crashing. This was seen as a demonstration of their driving skills and gave rise to the meaning of a risky or precarious situation.

Children’s Game and Early Modern Usage

Some linguists attribute the idiom’s origins to an old children’s game. In the 17th century, “touch-and-go” referred to a game similar to tag, in which players would briefly touch their target before moving on. This playful origin emphasizes quick, fleeting contact, aligning with the idiom’s brief engagement meaning.

Modern Usage and Aviation

In modern aviation, the term “touch-and-go” describes a training maneuver in which an aircraft briefly lands and then immediately takes off again without coming to a complete stop. While this usage developed much later, it resonates with the idiom’s original themes of brief, momentary contact and the narrow avoidance of complete cessation.

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