Word Policing: The Difficulty of Words and Meaning

Touching (from dictionary.com)

  1. affecting; moving; pathetic: a touching scene of farewell.
  2. that touches.

Last night my wife made a comment to my daughter about “touching her teeth to her tongue.” My son quickly corrected my wife and said “should you have said that you touched your tongue to your teeth?”

 A child’s naïve comment, right?

 Or is it?

If someone had asked me the defintion of “touch” or “touching” prior to my son’s comment and I had to just describe it off the cuff, I’d probably have settled into some defintion about two objects being in physical contact with each other.

As it turns out, this isn’t usually correct. In fact, the word “touching” seems to carry with it a nuance that isn’t obvious at first, namely that the object that is ‘moving’ is the one “doing the touching” and the stationary object is the one “being touched.”  My son’s comment made me realize that, even though I had never consciously thought of this, I somehow knew to use the word in that way.

After all, it is abnormal to say “the wall touched me” but perfectly normal to say “I touched the wall.” An exceptoin to this rule would (interestingly) be if the wall itself was moving and I was stationary.

My son, unconsciously, realized this too, thus his question; tongues move more than teeth, so it actually does make more sense to say “my tongue touched my teeth” then “my teeth touched my tongue.”

However, now that I think about it, it’s a totally different story if I bite my tongue. In that case, since the teeth or doing more of the moving, I might just say that my teeth touched my tongue to convey the idea. (Though I’d more likely just say I bit my tongue. Pretend, however, I’m explaining this to a child that is still learning the word ‘bit’ but already knew ‘touched.’ Yeah, I know, it’s a stretch. Just go with it.)

In fact, the dictionary sort of (though perhaps not entirely) captures this nuance:

Touch (from dictionary.com)

  1. to put the hand, finger, etc., on or into contact with (something) to feel it: He touched the iron cautiously.
  2. to come into contact with and perceive (something), as the hand or the like does.
  3. to bring (the hand, finger, etc., or something held) into contact with something: She touched a match to the papers.
  4. to give a slight tap or pat to with the hand, finger, etc.; strike or hit gently or lightly.
  5. to come into or be in contact with.

Of these definitions, only the last allows for a statement like “look at those two trees that are touching” where both are stationary. In reality, the words ‘touch’ and ‘touching’ seem to very strongly favor a connotation where one of the objects is moving. I wonder why that is. I can’t even really guess other than it must have been useful to use it in that way for some reason.

This is a good example of how difficult it is to truly define a word. Words carry unexpected nuance at an unconscious level.