Situations that are touch and go are risky or precarious, have a significant chance of failure, and often require great effort or skill from those involved in order to avoid disaster. For instance, emergency medical situations in which positive outcomes are not assured are often described as touch and go. The phrase is also common in sports, where it’s often used to describe a period of adversity before a team prevails.
Touch and go is usually a phrasal adjective, though it does double as a noun referring to a touch-and-go approach to a difficult situation. As an adjective, it’s usually hyphenated when it precedes what it modifies (e.g., a touch-and-go situation), and it’s unhyphenated when it follows what it modifies (e.g., the situation was touch and go).
The term came about around 1800 as British nautical slang for close calls at sea (there was an earlier sense, to address something briefly and move on, that was common in the 19th century but appears to be unrelated to the nautical phrase). When two ships came close enough together to touch but continued on their courses, or when one ship scraped bottom or came close to colliding with a reef or stone, the close call was described as touch and go. It’s easy to see how our modern use of the phrase could have descended from this, and indeed the phrase was already in metaphorical use by the early 1800s.
The term has a separate use in aviation. A touch-and-go landing is one in which the pilot lands briefly on the runway and takes off again without coming to a stop.
[T]he main-sail having been kept on, had dragged her completely over the rocks and in a few minutes afterwards we were safely anchored. This was what I afterwards heard called “ touch and go,” and, perhaps, one of those occurrences which serve people to talk and laugh about when the danger is past. [The United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine (1830)]
I think the Miguelites never fought so well as they did this day, and it was just touch and go, that they did not get the better of us. [Naval Sketch-book, William Nugent Glascock (1834)]
For a minute or two it is touch-and-go whether or not the raft spins and is wrecked.[The Peoples and Politics of the Far East, Henry Normal (1895)]
For the greater part of the match it was touch-and-go between the veteran and the younger man, and, indeed, at one time, in between the eight and the eleventh holes, Gene was on the ropes. [New York Times (1928)]
After the shambles of Quantum of Solace … , it was touch and go whether the Bond franchise … actually had a future in the 21st century. [Guardian]
With Christine, born almost 4 years later, it had been touch and go due to a retained placenta and much loss of blood. [Gift of Tears, Susan Lendrum, Gabrielle Syme]
Army intelligence officers had already started a touch-and-go relationship with the Ukrainians, using them to try to gather information about the Soviet military. [Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner]
As well as Horwill, the Reds’ other injury concern is inside centre Anthony Faingaa, who remains touch and go due to a hand complaint. [News.com.au]