Q&A: How to use “touché”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're touché feely…

Q: Ready for another chat this week?

A: We’re always ready.

Q: Touché!

A: Um, do you know what that means?

Q: Well, okay, no. But I would like to.

A: Let’s start with the definition then.

Q: Touché!

A: Again, no. 

Q: So, let me guess. It’s French? Something to do with touching?

A: That’s mostly correct. The word comes from Old French “touchier” – meaning to hit. It’s where we get the English word “touch” from – all the way back in the early 1300s.

Q: And what about “touché”?

A: It’s much newer. “To hit” is the clue here – it actually comes from fencing.

Q: Ah okay. My Uncle Dwayne owns a farm and spends most of his days fencing.

A: Actually, we mean the combat sport of fencing, with weapons such as sabres or foils.

Q: Yeah, I know. He almost went to the Olympics.

A: Oh! Okay. Well, fencing as a sport took hold during the 1700s, but it was the first Modern Olympics in 1896 that elevated it. The word “touché” followed soon after in English – first appearing in 1897 as the acknowledgement of a hit during a fencing match.

Q: Touché!

A: Precisely. In this case, it was the past participle of “toucher” – essentially the English equivalent would be saying “I have been hit/touched”. 

Q: Oh, wait. So the person doing the hitting doesn’t announce it?

A: No, it’s the receiver. Or the referee may say it.

Q: That’s all very well, but there aren’t a lot of sabres at dinner parties.

A: Yes, well observed. And seeing as dinner parties do seem to make up approximately 92% of all occurrences of “touché!”, we should explain the broader meaning.

Q: Yes please.

A: It actually didn’t take long to manifest – recorded from 1907, just 10 years after the sporting term. And it works in a similar way, except instead of a touch from a sabre, the speaker is acknowledging a different sort of hit. What Macquarie Dictionary describes as “a telling remark or rejoinder”.

Q: A rejoinder? 

A: It means a sharp or witty reply.

Q: Ahhh – okay. So, you say it much like a tennis player might clap the opponent for a good shot?

A: Exactly! It’s a form of etiquette that adds a level of civility to the discourse and in a “battle of wits”, it is the acknowledgement of a worthy hit.

Q: Like playing Battleships?

A: Yes, dinner party conversation is just like marine warfare.

Q: Touché!

A: Yeah, close enough.

Q: So, to recap, it’s really just a fancy way of saying “I’ll pay that”, “sick burn” or “good point” in response to a witty reply or an astute observation?

A: It is. Most importantly, “touché” typically brings the exchange to a close – the speaker acknowledging what was said as a worthy final blow. 

Q: So it’s really more like “you SUNK my battleship!”

A: Yep. The word is perhaps a relic of a more formal time, but lives on nonetheless perhaps because its noble sounding vibe offers something unique.

Q: If you want your English to sound classy, use French…

A: Touché!

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