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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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