March 17, 2013 4:38 PM   Subscribe

I think I don't understand the meaning, in English, of "touché."

So, I understand that in English, "touché" means "You, my opponent in this verbal argument, have made a good point."

However, I've always thought that the implication was slightly mocking- as in, "That's a good but minor point, and other than saying this French word I decline to engage with it and will continue talking about the important stuff." I also thought there was an implication of a person who was overly interested in minutia or the letter of the law, rather than the substance of the debate.

I've heard it a couple times recently in the more straightforward way- acknowledging a good point, in one case ending the discussion because it was hard to refute whatever the good point was. It confused me enough that I looked it up, and of course there was no mention of the mocking that I thought was actually inherent to the term.

So, have I always just misunderstood the context or implications or whatever of "touché"? Is it actually a compliment and not a jab?
posted by Snarl Furillo to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have heard people use it both ways. I think it's all about the tone of the person using the term. Similar to most compliments - like, you could say "Great idea!" and mean it fully as a compliment, or you could say it in a mocking tone and mean the opposite.
posted by rainbowbrite at 4:41 PM on March 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I suppose it could be said sarcastically as a jab. But I understand the meaning to be not only say good point I have no rebuttal, but also a way to use humor to save face.
posted by abirdinthehand at 4:43 PM on March 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

I've always heard it used in a way similar to the term 'check mate'.

Ie: Good point, I've got nothing to come back with.
posted by Youremyworld at 4:43 PM on March 17, 2013 [11 favorites]

I've always understood it to be a rueful, respectful, quick way of conveying "Score one for you; you've not only refuted my point, but done so in a way that neatly undercuts the basis of what I was trying to prove."
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:44 PM on March 17, 2013 [8 favorites]

I never thought of it as a sarcastic rebuttal. To me, it's another way of saying, "ya got me."
posted by BostonTerrier at 4:44 PM on March 17, 2013 [15 favorites]

'As you say' is my understanding of it. The tone of voice distinguishes it as an insult or an agreement.
posted by myselfasme at 4:45 PM on March 17, 2013

I believe that it is a term borrowed from the sport of fencing. When you say "touché," you are saying that the other person's argument touched yours, as a fencing rapier touched your competitor.
posted by pickypicky at 4:46 PM on March 17, 2013 [11 favorites]

I don't think there is a mocking component to it necessarily. To me, it basically means "good point and I can not rebut your statement". As an example, here is an extremely short clip from Dodgeball where Ben Stiller finds himself unable to rebut the point made by Vince Vaughn.
posted by A Bad Catholic at 4:47 PM on March 17, 2013

I've never felt it to have a mocking aspect, but in my experience it's generally used in an ironic, self-deprecating faux gentleman sort of way to defuse the pretentiousness of using French words. And I've only ever heard it used (or used it myself) for conceding minor points.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 4:47 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding picky picky, the etymology of the word comes from fencing, literally, "a touch". It does not signify the end of a duel etc, simply a point scored for the opponent.

I remember, a play, a book, a movie - I'm unable to find it. A character, when questioned, answered thusly: "It means you have wounded me, but only slightly".
posted by smoke at 4:53 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

So, I understand that in English, "touché" means "You, my opponent in this verbal argument, have made a good point."

it would be more accurate to say "You, my opponent in this verbal argument, have scored a point against me," ie, have made a point which I cannot rebut.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:54 PM on March 17, 2013 [9 favorites]

I don't take it as a "wining point," as some of the commenters above have; I use it (rarely) to acknowledge that the opponent has a valid point which requires a bit of rethinking. I'd be most likely to use it with friends; a colleague or stranger would be more likely to get "hmmm. good point."
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:56 PM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think His thoughts were red thoughts pretty much has it. It's not so much about winning an argument and more "you've made a point in the argument for me to consider". It can be used both straight and jokingly but it seems a joke is more common these days.
posted by fishmasta at 5:05 PM on March 17, 2013

Oxford Dictionary definition:

(1) (in fencing) used as an acknowledgement of a hit by one’s opponent.

(2) used as an acknowledgement during a discussion of a good or clever point made at one’s expense by another person:
‘You haven’t contributed much, this evening.’
‘How could I have?’
‘Touché. I do go on.’
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:14 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, from fencing, it's a sporting acknowledgement that "you got me."
posted by alms at 5:20 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've always thought of it as not simply "you have made a good point against which I cannot argue," but additionally, "and you've done so using or referencing a particular weakness of mine, but I will graciously acknowledge that instead of getting mad at you for it." So there is a slight mocking quality, but the person who says "touché" is slightly mocking themselves.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:29 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the mocking component is not inherent to the meaning. Since it's French, it does lend itself to sarcastic use because it allows for overly grandiose "praise" of a stupid argument. But that is an inversion of the original meaning.
posted by spaltavian at 5:32 PM on March 17, 2013

the word comes from fencing, literally, "a touch".
Well, even more literally "touched" (touché is the past participle of toucher = to touch).

Similar to "A hit, a very palpable hit," also a fencing reference, from Hamlet. It's not usually conceding the whole argument, but a subsidiary point.

As with most ackowledgements of losing it can be a straightforward, but it can also be somewhat ironic and (self or not) mocking.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 5:38 PM on March 17, 2013

Is it actually a compliment and not a jab?

Generally, yes. Here's the OED:
b. A pleasant admission of a valid point or justified accusation made by another person.
The idea is, as in fencing, that it's a mark of good character and sportsmanship to concede readily that your opponent has bested you. It's naturally also possible to be a good sport sarcastically, but that's not the default meaning.
posted by RogerB at 5:45 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have heard it sarcastically pronounced as "toosh!"
posted by Addlepated at 6:09 PM on March 17, 2013

"Fair enough."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:43 PM on March 17, 2013

Best answer: You've got lots of good advice above, but I'd like to add one small bit of nuance:

To me, "touché" suggests that the speaker is surprised to discover an opponent worthy of themselves in the present company, where he/she didn't previously believe there to be one. The speaker suspected that he was superior (in intellect or wit, etc) and expected not to be challenged, but upon hearing his opponent's rejoinder, is pleased to discover an opportunity for challenging discourse, and will henceforth turn up their intensity accordingly.

I must confess, however, that I'm not sure this is actually a nuance of the word itself; it may be simply that the word is sometimes/often? used in this context.
posted by segatakai at 6:49 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've generally heard it as an unalloyed compliment, but generally only in the context of trading non-serious playful barbs with others and not in matters of serious discussion. Maybe that's where you're getting the inference of mocking?
posted by LionIndex at 6:57 PM on March 17, 2013

Along with the standard use noted above, I too have heard it used in a mocking/sarcastic way:

"...which of course was proved by Davidson's famous paper published last year."

"Yeah..well...Davidson is ... that is to say ... I mean ... YOU'RE DUMB!"

"Oh, touché."

I think in real life it is more common to see it used sincerely, but in sitcoms you more often see the sarcastic version.
posted by mikepop at 7:27 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

This video might help.
posted by 4ster at 7:43 PM on March 17, 2013

It is a compliment but it can be used sarcastically as a jab, as can "that is a good argument".
posted by beau jackson at 10:08 PM on March 17, 2013

Part of the context here is the lost art, as they say, of conversation. I think most commonly it is meant sincerely, but has an air of "nevertheless we're done debating this and will move on to something else". I would also say there is a camp meaning where you are sincerely, effusively cheering on someone being incisive and (especially) witty. "Well, that dress is pretty marvelous ... for a woman with your figure." "Oh, touché! You [banned word]!"

I have heard it sarcastically pronounced as "toosh!"

I am not certain this can be objectively separated from "wala!" (for voilà) or other similar eggcorns (such as my D&D playing friends who spoke of "mealy rounds").
posted by dhartung at 11:21 PM on March 17, 2013

Best answer: No, it's not mocking.
I'll go further - when you say it, you should mean it genuinely, or at least in friendly humor.
I say that perhaps because I'm coming at this with a fencing (and an English-speaking) background; failure to acknowledge a legitimate touch is bad character, bad sportsmanship. No-one wins if you're being a dick about recognizing legitimate hits. Verbal sparring is similar - acknowledging valid points is the entire purpose of the endeavor, else what's the point? So if you want to taint that foundation with sarcasm, do it carefully, or better yet, not at all.
posted by anonymisc at 11:24 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

touché can be used in a variety of contexts to acknowledge that a point has been made, it can be ironic, but isn't necessarily. It comes from fencing, for sure, but there's another reference point among younger users of the expression, which is la bataille navale (battleship) : touché is a hit / coulé means one of your ships was sunk. Thus, it means that the point being made, although an important one, is not going to completely interrupt your train of thought.
posted by nicolin at 12:31 AM on March 18, 2013

Touché is what one says when one has had the conversational equivalent of a drop shot in tennis. The drop shot takes the power of the incoming shot, absorbs it and returns it with less power but more effectiveness, winning the point.

It is, generally, a response to something where the aggression of the original point has been quietly turned on itself, showing its flaws or absurdity. It may mock, but it doesn't have to.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:15 AM on March 18, 2013

From fencing, it's a term that means, roughly, you have stabbed me.

It takes a good sport to use it fairly in verbal combat. A good sport would use it to commend an opponent on his skill and acknowledge a defeated point in his argument--it's a pretty compact courtesy, to which the victor may reply with a slight nod, so as not to draw out the defeated person's agony overly much. A bad sport would use it as if he were spitting sour grapes, so the victor may appropriately repeat the manuever, perhaps stabbing the jerk just a bit more vigorously the next time. You can see how flame wars get ignited and fanned because folks abuse certain basic courstesies.
posted by mule98J at 10:25 AM on March 18, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all for your elucidations on the various shadings of this phrase! I think I will continue to not use it personally but also will not take offense if someone says it to me (and also will consider that if I'm feeling offended by someone saying it to me, it might be time to step away from the "friendly verbal sparring" for the day.).
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:02 PM on March 18, 2013

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