Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Post by Archived Topic » Thu Nov 18, 2004 6:03 pm

Does anyone know the meaning of the word TOUCHSTONE. The dictionary meaning is that it is a benchmark. I have heard it used in the sence that it is something that enters ones life. Any ideas??

Submitted by Gary Moran (Marquette - U.S.A.)

Gary, I find no reason to think that ‘touchstone’ means anything other than what the dictionaries say it means. You might want to look through the definitions of the word provided by the 18 dictionaries returned by (see left side of Wordwizard home page). I also recommend that if you post any questions in the future that you give it the title of your word or phrase of interest and not the very informative phrase ‘word meaning’!

Ken G – July 30, 2004

Response from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)


I'm not sure that Gary isn't right to a certain degree. If you look at some of the uses on the web, you will see a wide range of meanings which go beyond the dictionary definitions. (Try "my touchstone" as a phrase.) It often seems to be used in the sense of "a guiding light" or "a motto" or even something along the lines of "a focal point". My guess is that the meaning is shifting and that it hasn't reached the dictionaries yet (in the same way that I believe that "turgid" has acquired an extended meaning, possibly through ignorance of the original, accepted meaning).

I'm not sure whether "something that enters one's life" can be regarded as a common meaning, but there are certainly common meanings out in the wild which can't be easily reconciled with the dictionaries.

Phil W. 30 July, 2004

Response from Phil White (Munich - Germany)

Phil, You may be right, but I think it is very difficult in some instances to know exactly what is meant when a different meaning seems to fit a context. It seems to me that it is well-nigh impossible in this case, at least, to infer from a context whether the intention is ‘benchmark/test/criterion,’ ‘guiding light,’ or ‘motto.’ American Heritage Dictionary says for ‘touchstone’: ” An excellent quality or example that is used to test the excellence or genuineness of others: “the qualities of courage and vision that are the touchstones of leadership” (Henry A. Kissinger).” If one substituted ‘guiding lights’ or ‘mottos’ in Kissinger’s quote, I believe most would consider that equally valid, although the meanings are somewhat different.

I think it is true that sometimes new meanings of words are based on misconceptions of what the original meant or extensions of the original, but actually fit pretty well, and eventually turn out to be accepted usages after a time – and this could be the case with these new suggested meanings of ‘touchstone.’

Ken – July 30, 2004

Response from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)

Thanks guys for the discussion, but Ken, why pick on poor Gary? Reproving him for his minor slip in protocol is equivalent in magnitude to deconstructing the miniscule difference between "touchstone" and "guiding light"

Response from dale hileman (Apple Valley, CA - U.S.A.)

Dale, I don’t think you quite understand the issue here. When someone posts under such titles as ‘word meaning’ or ‘word origin’ that ‘minor slop’ causes the discussion that follows to be totally irretrievable. What I said, what you said, or what anyone says is lost as far as a future search goes. We have a very good search function, but it only can find titles of discussions and if the defining words aren’t in the title it’s bye-bye – such postings are useless for our archive and are generally soon erased by the site administrator. And it specifically states on the ‘discuss word or phrase origin’ submission page:

“Use the word or phrase in question as the title of this discussion, . . . Entries simply entitled 'word origin', 'phrase origin' or similar are usually not answered by other members and may be deleted.”

So I was not picking on poor Gary for no good reason. I was pointing out the error to him and others that read the posting so that they wont keep making the same mistake in the future.

Ken G – July 31, 2004

Response from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)

A minor slop is the result of drinking small beer.

Response from Erik Kowal ( - England)

A small beer is the result of drinking in the pub of a sloppy landlord.

Response from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)

Erik and Edwin, Is a slip-slop a sibilant flip-flop? It’s that darned Viola again. She should know how to spell it by know – I’ve given her enough of them, which she even sometimes wears while ‘working’ around the office. Anyway, here in Colorado ‘minor slop’ is what you feed a small pig and Major Slop teaches ethics to male cadets over at the Air Force Academy!

Ken – July 31, 2004

Response from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)

Yes, they should aspire to higher things and leave Base motives behind them. But what would happen if the pigs got a dose of Major Slop by mistake?

Response from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)

Well, please pardon my short sightedness and for being a neophyte to this web sight. I guess the new guy has to learn the site conventions before competing in the arena. Anyway….thank you for your responses most of which were not to insightful.

I have a friend who is a writer and had used the term touchstone is the sense that it was someone or something that enters ones life that could change you or open your mind to something new. I was somewhat confused because of the dictionary meaning of the word. I was hoping that this forum might shed some light on it.

It looks like Phil was the closest one to assisting me in my quest and I thank him.

Response from Gary Moran (Marquette - U.S.A.)


If not quite a newcomer, I also am only a recent visitor to the site. Being shot down in flames is about the worst that happens here. The crowd here try to be helpful and have a heap of wisdom (and reference books) to offer. As far as "touchstone" is concerned, I would not think that the meaning has shifted as far as you suggest. The fine line between "benchmark" and "guiding light/motto" is moot, but I think most people would regard your friend's meaning as an incorrect usage.

Response from Phil White (Munich - Germany)


Thank you once again, you have helped me Tremendously. After giving it some thought, if someone or something that enters your life and is a guiding light it could be a life changing condition. Much obliged.

Response from Gary Moran (Marquette - U.S.A.)

What is 'shot down in flames'?

Response from Julie Kay (Bronnitsy - Russia)

'Shot down in flames' is, I am pretty sure, an allusion to the successful shooting down of enemy aircraft. Hence in normal usage it means 'to have one's opinions or facts be publicly corrected, usually in a humiliating way'. At least that's how I've always interpreted the expression.

Response from Erik Kowal ( - England)

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