Which Word Wednesday: Tetchy vs. Touchy

By December 28, 2011 language 2 Comments

I got a new word for Christmas. It came to me while playing Cranium with the family. A trivia question presented to the guys’ team asked for the proper definition of the word tetchy. I had never seen that one before, and I wondered if the more commonly used touchy had usurped it. That was enough to give me today’s Which Word Wednesday duel (weapon-free, of course—it’s Christmas).

Definitions from The Oxford American Dictionary:

tetchy :: adjective
bad-tempered and irritable

touchy :: adjective
(of a person) oversensitive and irritable

The words are very similar: adjectives describing temperament or an emotional display. Although I could find no basis for this conclusion, it seems that a tetchy person is grouchy due to anger whereas a touchy person is grouchy because he is overly sensitive to the perceived slights of others.

As for the connection between the two words, Julia Cresswell tells us (in The Insect That Stole the Butter? Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins) that “touchy, ‘easily upset or offended,’ . . . was probably originally an alliteration of tetchy.”1

The OAD tells us that usage of tetchy can be traced from the late 16th century, whereas touchy is a bit newer, from the “early 17th cent.: perhaps an alteration of tetchy.” So the connection between the two words is likely! Good enough for me. Another word mystery put to rest.

What’s my WWW verdict? Some words stick better than others. Why does touchy get more use than tetchy? I think it’s because we the root, touch, is in regular use (tetchy has no familiar root).

What’s your verdict? Why do we use touchy more than tetchy? Did you get any new words for Christmas? Do share in the comments.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Julia Cresswell, The Insect That Stole the Butter? Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 452.

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