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I’ve heard the term touched used to refer to someone who is “not quite right”. I’m curious as to where this term came from, what it really means, and why it doesn’t tend to be used often anymore.

Is it seen as offensive now, or does it just seem dated because it might be seen as religious or something (as in “touched by an angel” or “touched by God”)?

I’ve also heard someone say that “on the spectrum is the new touched”, indicating that both terms are intended to be “delicate” ways of saying the same thing (with the further implication that “touched” was often used to refer to a person with autism, before many people knew what autism was). Is there any truth to this?

What got me thinking on this is the new Kiefer Sutherland show Touch which is about a kid who is diagnosed as autistic, although clearly there is something else (supernatural, presumably) going on. I was curious if the name was partially in reference to the term.

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For completeness, we should note that "to touch" also means "to borrow from" (with, unless I'm greatly mistaken, the understanding that it very likely will not be repaid). So, for example, you could say, "He was touched for a hundred dollars." I specifically have in mind the use of this meaning of "being touched" by Bertram Wooster, the wealthly young master of Jeeves. –  Hexagon Tiling Mar 19 '12 at 8:29
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See also tetched. –  Daniel Mar 19 '12 at 11:11
    
If touched was used to indicate 'not mentally normal', it presumably included some people who would now be diagnosed autistic, as well as some suffering from iodine deficiency and some victims of chronic inbreeding. But that is not in itself reason to think that people who used the term treated the sufferers less well than we do now: I am sure the 25th century will regard present-day psychiatry as little better than mediaeval. –  TimLymington Mar 24 '12 at 21:13

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I've not heard the word applied specifically to autism, but all euphemisms tend to be replaced by newer ones. Each in its turn comes to be more closely associated with the thing it’s trying to distance itself from, and so a less direct expression is required.

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Nice analysis. Reminds me of the tecnical issue of "drifting" - for example, why we have leap years, namely, that unadjusted frameworks always tend to drift from the phenomona that they're supposed to track. –  Hexagon Tiling Mar 19 '12 at 8:31

My understanding was that the full phrase waS touched in the head, which is quite a good description of the stereotypical village idiot, unable to form a full sentence (also sometimes called a natural). But it is perhaps not a phrase that doctors and parents would care for, as well as being dated.

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This chart suggests that touched [in the head] became more popular during/following WW2.

enter image description here

Doubtless the number of real-world referents increased because of traumatised soldiers and civilians, and increased contact between people of radically different backgrounds meant one would meet people who seemed decidedly "odd" from your perspective, even if they were considered "normal" in their home environment.

I don't think the chart (or my own experience) suggests the term has "fallen into disuse" any more than one would expect in today's more "socially correct" publishing environment. The allusion is to touched by God, and it's been around since at least 1742. It's something of a euphemism, along the lines of today's even more common "Always remember, Mrs Smith, your child is 'special'".

As well as any decline associated with changing social attitudes (or at least, acceptable terminology for use in public), it's worth noting that the expression always had somewhat limited applicability. Many related words like mad, insane, moronic, idiotic, etc., have long been used as casual/jocular insults, but it's important to note that most such words can easily be applied to an individual act or statement ("Doing that would be crazy!").

To my ear, touched [in the head] has always seemed slightly "softer" and more indulgent than many close alternatives such as cuckoo, loco, cracked, deranged, unhinged, loony, etc., most of which sound far more dated and/or callously uncaring to me.

Noting the way gay is routinely used today as a general-purpose insult (piggy-backing off the "original" negative homosexual connotations), I don't think there's really any evidence to suggest that popular speech is moving towards greater tolerance and inclusiveness. Mainstream media are perhaps more careful in their choice of terminology today - but even if there is greater social awareness of autism and other mental health issues among better-informed people these days, I don't think this is going to change the popular vernacular much.

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Well I'll give you a +1 for the well researched answer, but saying I indulge in pious wishful thinking might not be the best strategy for having it accepted as the answer. :) –  rob Mar 19 '12 at 18:37
    
@rob: Well, you do imply that somehow the fact that we have a word autism (a condition/tendency not well understood even by specialists, let alone by the public at large) affects our attitude to use of euphemisms in this general area. Personally, if my own teenage daughter used "on the spectrum" as shorthand for "abnormal, somewhere on the Autism Spectrum of Pervasive Developmental Disorders", I think I'd tell her that was inappropriate, flippant, and nowhere near as "smart" as she thought it was. –  FumbleFingers Mar 19 '12 at 18:52
    
...of course, that may not be what you meant to imply. I'm not intending to be dismissive of you personally - only the (possibly misinterpreted) significance of your last paragraph. Which might just be you neutrally reporting what someone else said to you, I don't know. –  FumbleFingers Mar 19 '12 at 18:54
    
Well the euphemism is obviously based on some knowledge of autism, since it is essentially jargon from the field, but appropriated into popular vernacular. Unlike "touched", which I don't gather ever had any medical or psychiatric basis. And I agree that people probably shouldn't be using "on the spectrum" in that flippant sort of way, but I don't think there is any way to prevent people in general from speculating as to what mental disorder someone might have. (and it might be better than just labeling someone as a "weirdo" or a "spaz" or something) –  rob Mar 19 '12 at 19:41
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@rob: Quite. I'll remove the "aside" from my answer though, since your comments here make it quite clear they're not really appropriate. –  FumbleFingers Mar 19 '12 at 19:54

A current diagnosis (and equivalent image) might be: traumatic brain injury. The description of TBI, in its range of manifestations, minor to severe, seems to cover both "a little odd/special" and "retarded". (It doesn't, however, cover PTSD symptoms: panic, etc... but surely war injuries/experiences must have created many of both...)

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