Loco in the coco.

Dear Word Detective: In a biography of Alexander Hamilton, the author at one point describes George Washington as “tetchy” meaning “irritable.” I’m familiar with the use of “touchy” for irritable, and I’d heard the phrase “he’s a little tetched” to describe someone who’s a bit off mentally (and the use of “touched” to mean the same.) I’d always thought, though, that “tetched” was a backwoods variant and not standard English, but my dictionary and the author of the Hamilton biography seem to think otherwise. So my question is: are “touch” and “tetch” derived from the same origin? Or because of their similar sound did “touch” start to move “tetch” out of the language? I can’t imagine that “tetch” can be used to indicate one of the five senses, so my guess is they’re different words that have melded. — Barney Johnson.

Hey, watch it with that “backwoods” stuff. We actually have a “Backwoods Festival” around here every year, where the locals sell faux “backwoods” folk art (mostly made in the backwoods of Hong Kong and Managua) to suburban suckers hankering for a wide-eyed plywood scarecrow to lend that certain something to their patio.

Meanwhile, back at your question, “touchy” and “tetchy” appear to be separate words, although they both mean “irritable.” “Touchy” in its basic sense, of course, simply reflects “sensitive to touch” or “delicate,” as we call a difficult or precarious situation “touchy.” The literal senses of “touchy” (including “easily ignited” in the 17th century) clearly involve the idea of physical touching.

“Tetchy,” meaning “easily irritated or made angry,” first appeared in the late 16th century (in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in fact), and, unlike “touchy,” has never carried any literal connotations of physical contact. “Tetchy” appears to be a derivative of “tetch,” an English dialect word meaning “tantrum,” but the first written record of “tetch” comes after the appearance of “tetchy,” so “tetch” may actually be a “back formation” derived from “tetchy.” The root of “tetch” is, predictably, unknown, but it may be related to “attach” in the sense of “grip.” There is also a possibility, which makes me very tetchy, that “touchy” in the “irritable” sense and “tetchy” have been the same word all along.

As for “touched” (in the sense of “slightly demented,” short for “touched in the head”), “tetched” is simply a “backwoods” or colloquial variant, and has no apparent connection to “tetch” in the “irritable” sense.

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