The literal and original meaning of this phrase is to briefly touch on something and then go on to something else. But these days we usually take “touch and go” to describe a risky, precarious, or delicate state of things, where the slightest change could prove disastrous. We might say of a heart operation that it was touch and go whether the patient would live.
Apparently the first use of “touch and go” in print appeared in Seven Sermons Before Edward VI, published in 1869. This publication is a transcript of sermons preached in 1549 to Edward VI by the English cleric, Hugh Latimer. Latimer opened by saying that he intended to merely touch on the things he wanted to say and then to enlarge on them later.
This approach is much like the one my husband once described for writing articles for a newspaper or magazine, which he did as a young man in college. “First you tell the readers what you are going to tell them, then you tell them in detail, and then you finish up by telling them again, in the form of a summary.” Thus, Latimer’s idea of “merely touching on something” before dealing with the information in detail may be where the phrase “touch and go” started.
The modern “precarious situation” meaning followed soon after. In the memoirs of the Scottish clergyman Ralph Wardlaw, published in 1815, a letter includes these words: “Twas touch and go — but I got my seat.”
Robert Claiborne, in Loose Cannons and Red Herrings, says, “(The phrase) Dates back to the days of stagecoaches, whose drivers were often intensely competitive, seeking to charge past one another, on narrow roads, at grave danger to life and limb. If the vehicle’s wheels became entangled, both would be wrecked; if they were lucky, the wheels would only touch and the coaches could still go.”
In those exciting days of exploration, one could say the same thing of anything within a hair’s breadth of ruin, such as in steering a ship very narrowly to escape rocks, or when, under sail, she rubs against the ground with her keel, without much reduction of her speed.
But, quite certainly, not all the “touch and go” situations happened in the past. All over the world, drivers are saying, “It’s touch and go whether I get through that amber light in time. Oops!”