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Toe the line

Q From Andrew: I did not see the phrase, toe the line (or could it be tow the line?) on your site. That one has never made sense to me. Can you help?

A It’s correctly toe the line, but it is indeed often seen as tow the line, an error that’s all too easy to make when in a hurry. In this case, the association of ideas between tow and line (in the sense of a rope) is often too powerful to overcome, and the lack of any clear mental image of where it comes from is a contributing factor.

It’s often said, among other stories, that it comes from ancient practice in the House of Commons, the lower house of the British parliament. A pair of lines is painted on the floor that separates the two front benches, replicating ones in earlier chambers (the Commons is strong on tradition). The rule used to be that during debates members could step no nearer the opposing benches than the line on their side of the floor. This dates from a period when members habitually wore swords and the rule was designed to deter them from getting into potentially fatal confrontations (the lines are traditionally two sword lengths apart). So much is historical fact. But it is also said that if debate was getting too heated, the Speaker would demand that members “toe the line”. Tourist guides and some books on word histories tell visitors that this is the source of the expression. It isn’t.

Toe the line is actually the survivor of a set of phrases that were common in the nineteenth century; others were toe the mark, toe the scratch, toe the crack, or toe the trig. In every case, the image was that of men lining up with the tips of their toes touching some line. They might be on parade, or preparing to undertake some task, or in readiness for a race or fight. The earliest recorded form is dated 1813, in a book by Hector Bull-Us (a pseudonym, you will not be surprised to hear, in this case of James Kirke Paulding) with the title The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan. This already had the modern figurative sense of conforming to the usual standards or rules: “He began to think it was high time to toe the mark”. Many early examples are from the British Navy, which is where it may have originated.

Toe the crack is an American form of the 1820s in reference to a crack in the floorboards that delineates a straight line. Toe the scratch is from prize fighting, where scratch was the line drawn across the ring (often in the earth of an informal outdoor ring) to which the fighters were brought ready for the contest — it’s a close relative of to come up to scratch. In toe the trig, trig is an old term for a boundary or centre line in various sports.

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Page created 17 Jan 2004; Last updated 18 Dec 2005