I keep a couple of favorite words in my back pocket – English words with a beautiful sound and a beguiling poetry. Everyone who cares even a little about language surely has their own list.
Mine has two words tied for first place: “evening” and “watershed.”
There’s a third word I never tire of hearing: “Touché!”
In terms of sound and etymology, “Touché!” wouldn’t be my favorite word in English, even if it were an English word. It isn’t even my favorite French word. It is, however, the very highest compliment you could possibly pay me.
Touché originated as a term in the elegant sport of fencing, acknowledging an opponent’s jab that has found its mark cleanly and effectively.
Likewise, in conversation, you’re using the same word to tell me: “I acknowledge that you have just insulted me, but you did so gently, and far from being offended, I’m smiling with marvel at how witty your remark was. You exposed something we both understood was true, and you did so in a spirit of teasing, not as a headbutt. I really should not want to laugh, but I must laugh, and for that I salute you.”
The word must always be presented alone, as if on a platter, and must always include the exclamation point. Strip away the exclamation point, and the word becomes something different: you’re acknowledging the gentle insult at your expense, all right, but you’re doing so peevishly, thereby robbing the word of its value, and far from defusing the insult, you’re making the explosion twice as powerful. But keep the exclamation point intact, and your “Touché!” is a gift, like verbally handing your insulter a hundred dollars.
I try to give this gift away as often as possible, and when a friend insults me gently but accurately, it’s a lyrical and fairly inexpensive way to say thanks, I’m in on the joke, and we’re good.
Once, early in a new relationship, I asked my friend John if he thought my new friend and I made a neurotic couple. “Well, I know you were a neurotic single, so yes, I’d say you make a neurotic couple,” he said.
This was many years ago, and I still smile at the speed and accuracy of that dart. If I didn’t say “Touché!,” it’s only because I was laughing too hard.
For all of its potential value, though, “Touché!” is also a comment I almost never come across. Is it too old-fashioned, or is it just a matter of the word not being the typical first thing that comes to mind when you’ve just been teased?
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