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Draw a line in the sand

Q From Mike Mellor: About the expression draw a line in the sand — there are many theories online, and a local freebie newspaper has a continuing correspondence on it. Its latest version is a British officer drawing such a line for rioting natives to keep behind, or face “lethal consequences”. Is this true?

A I’ve not been able to find an example of this exact event, but the idea behind it clearly fits the meaning of the idiom. By literally or figuratively drawing such a line, a person is saying “thus far and no further”, setting a limit to what is allowable.

Many people will remember it as one of the more quotable utterances of President Bush when in August 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait: “America and the world drew a line in the sand. We declared that the aggression against Kuwait would not stand.” The line wasn’t a literal one but an ultimatum that Saddam’s actions were unacceptable.

As you’ve discovered, there are other stories, such as the famous one about the line that the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro drew in Peru in 1527, asking his men to choose between Peru with its riches and Panama and its poverty. A biblical link to the Gospel of John is also quoted, as is one to a Roman general who drew a circle in the sand around King Antiochus IV, ordering him not to cross it until he had replied to a Roman ultimatum.

There are probably many other historical examples. People have surely been drawing demarcating lines for reasons of one kind or another for as long as there have been people.

The first English idiom based on the idea is draw the line, which is known from the eighteenth century. An early example:

Whether the letters are genuine or not, the produce of the Lady’s or of any other pen, matters little; they are sensible and satisfactory; and draw the line between real Christianity, and Methodism (which alas so many are apt to mistake) more clearly, than I have yet seen it done by any writer.

The Public Ledger (London), 7 Feb. 1761.

The specific action of drawing a line in sand is an elaborated version of the older saying that only began to be recorded within living memory. This is from its early days:

The Communists in 1950 when the war started were obviously trying to see how far they could go before the free world drew a line in the sand and said, “This Is It.” We drew the line and showed the communists we meant business.

The Daily Republic (Mitchell, South Dakota), 28 Jul. 1953.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Sep. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 27 September 2014.