Toe the line

Last updated

"Toe the line" is an idiomatic expression meaning either to conform to a rule or standard, or to stand in formation along a line. Other phrases which were once used in the early 1800s and have the same meaning were "toe the mark" and "toe the plank".

Contents

Origins

Toeing the Line, Byam Shaw John Liston Byam Shaw 010.jpg
Toeing the Line, Byam Shaw

The expression has disputed origins, though the two earliest known appearances in print are from the British Army, and the third from the Royal Navy. Those suggested are from public school, the armed services, Bare Knuckle Boxing, or possibly the British House of Commons.

Armed services

In the earliest known appearance of the phrase in print, The Army Regulator, 1738, an officer forming ranks of soldiers says: "Silence you dogs, toe the line...". [1]

The phrase's next known appearance was in 1775's 'An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia ', in which parading soldiers are instructed to "...bring their toes to the line c g, at the second step they toe the line c h..." [2]

The phrase appeared as a naval term in 1831, describing events of 1803: "..on the quarter deck we were arranged in a line, each with his toes at the edge of a plank..." to be subjected to "scoldings technically called 'toe-the-line' matches.' " [3]

The phrase "toeing a line" appeared in Captain Maryatt's story "Poor Jack" which was published in several American newspapers in 1841. It refers to the crew of a ship being marshaled and inspected by a Lieutenant. [4]

The most likely origin of the term goes back to the wooden decked ships of the Royal Navy during the late 17th or early 18th century. Barefooted seamen had to stand at attention for inspection and had to line up on deck along the seams of the wooden planks, hence to "toe the line". [5] The first known mention of this use in literature stems from a story about navy life widely published in 1831 and written by Captain Basil Hall RN. [6] Hall served in the Royal Navy from 1802.

On some military parade-grounds there are white lines marked, along which soldiers form up, with their toes just touching the line.

School

It is common practice in many long-established schools for roll-call to be taken twice a day, at which the pupils line up with their toes exactly along a particular line on the floor, while their names are called out for them to respond to, indicating their presence.[ citation needed ]

Reference to toeing the line in schools appeared in 1845: "...the class formed themselves, 'toed the line'...” [7]

House of Commons

It is commonly and erroneously thought that its origins lie in the British House of Commons where sword-strapped members were instructed to stand behind lines that were two sword-lengths apart from their political rivals in order to restore decorum. However, there is no record of a time when Members of Parliament were allowed to bring swords into the Chamber. Historically, only the Serjeant at Arms carries a sword as a symbol of his role in Parliament. There are loops of pink ribbon in the Members' cloakroom for MPs to hang up their swords before entering the Chamber to this very day as a result of this rule. In fact, there were not any lines in the Chamber in the days that gentlemen carried swords. [8]

Boundary line

A slightly different use of the term was found in an 1816 magazine, which stated, The Thalweg of the Rhine shall toe the line of separation between France and the German States; .... [9] The meaning in this context was marked the line of separation.

An earlier 1813 publication had used the term toe the mark which had the same meaning as toe the line's modern usage, where the author wrote He began to think it was high time to toe the mark. [10] An 1828 publication also used toe the plank with a similar meaning. [11]

Other suggested origins

Over the years the term has been attributed to sports, including toeing the starting line in track events and toeing a center line in boxing, where boxers were instructed to line up on either side of to start a match. However, the earlier boxing term was toeing the scratch, referring to a scratch mark on the floor. One of the earliest references related to an English prize fight in 1840. [12]

Byam Shaw's painting Toeing the Line, depicting a scene at Ascot, alludes to it being a term used in horse racing.

Misspelling as "tow the line"

"Toe the line" is often misspelled "tow the line", substituting a familiar verb "tow" for the unfamiliar verbal use of "toe." "Tow" does not accord with any of the proposed etymologies, so "tow the line" is a linguistic eggcorn. [13] [14]

Modern usage

Its modern-day use includes the context of partisan or factional politics, as in "He's toeing the party line", the context of athletics where it describes runners poised at the starting line, and in the context of behavior where the miscreant is expected to "toe the line". The first published use in a political context was in March 1826, where Willie Mangum of the United States House of Representatives proposed that "every member might 'toe the mark'." [15] The behavioral use also stems from around that time.

The term continues to be used in the context of cross-country and track and field running, although sometimes also symbolically in bicycle races to be at one's mark along the starting line before a race. [16] [17] [18]

Besides its literal use in middle and long-distance running, the term is still in literal use in the military, particularly the US Army. Some barracks have two solid lines, each approximately three inches wide and placed five feet apart, either taped or painted, running down the center of the entire length of their floor. The soldiers are ordered to "toe the line". At this command they cease their activities and line up with their toes on the line. [19]

In the game of darts, many places where it is played have a line marked on the floor that shows the closest point that the player may stand when launching darts at the dartboard.

In 1946 the writer George Orwell explicitly disparaged the idiomatic use of the phrase as an example of "worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves." [20]

The expression is used in a Beatles song—"Trying just to make you toe the line" in 1965's "Run for Your Life"—and is the basis for Rocky Burnette's 1980 hit song, "Tired of Toein' the Line". It is also mentioned in the song "Walk A Thin Line" by Lindsey Buckingham on the 1979 album "Tusk" by Fleetwood Mac.[ citation needed ]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pun</span> Form of word play

A pun, also rarely known as paronomasia, is a form of word play that exploits multiple meanings of a term, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. These ambiguities can arise from the intentional use of homophonic, homographic, metonymic, or figurative language. A pun differs from a malapropism in that a malapropism is an incorrect variation on a correct expression, while a pun involves expressions with multiple interpretations. Puns may be regarded as in-jokes or idiomatic constructions, especially as their usage and meaning are usually specific to a particular language or its culture.

An idiom is a phrase or expression that typically presents a figurative, non-literal meaning attached to the phrase. Some phrases which become figurative idioms, however, do retain the phrase's literal meaning. Categorized as formulaic language, an idiom's figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. Idioms occur frequently in all languages; in English alone there are an estimated twenty-five million idiomatic expressions.

In linguistics, a calque or loan translation is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal word-for-word or root-for-root translation. When used as a verb, "to calque" means to borrow a word or phrase from another language while translating its components, so as to create a new lexeme in the target language. For instance, the English word "skyscraper" has been calqued in dozens of other languages, combining words for "sky" and "scrape" in each language. Another notable example is the Latin weekday names, which came to be associated by ancient Germanic speakers with their own gods following a practice known as interpretatio germanica: the Latin "Day of Mercury", Mercurii dies, was borrowed into Late Proto-Germanic as the "Day of Wōđanaz" (*Wodanesdag), which became Wōdnesdæg in Old English, then "Wednesday" in Modern English.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Idiom dictionary</span> Dictionary or phrase book that lists and explains idioms

An idiom dictionary is a dictionary or phrase book that lists and explains idioms – distinctive words or phrases having a figurative meaning that goes beyond the original semantics of the words.

A solecism is a phrase that transgresses the rules of grammar. The term is often used in the context of linguistic prescription; it also occurs descriptively in the context of a lack of idiomaticness.

<i>Sic transit gloria mundi</i> Latin phrase

Sic transit gloria mundi is a Latin phrase that means "Thus passes the glory of the world."

Per capita is a Latin phrase literally meaning "by heads" or "for each head", and idiomatically used to mean "per person". The term is used in a wide variety of social sciences and statistical research contexts, including government statistics, economic indicators, and built environment studies.

In semantics, mathematical logic and related disciplines, the principle of compositionality is the principle that the meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meanings of its constituent expressions and the rules used to combine them. This principle is also called Frege's principle, because Gottlob Frege is widely credited for the first modern formulation of it. The principle was never explicitly stated by Frege, and it was arguably already assumed by George Boole decades before Frege's work.

Gefreiter is a German, Swiss and Austrian military rank that has existed since the 16th century. It is usually the second rank or grade to which an enlisted soldier, airman or sailor could be promoted.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eggcorn</span> Altered phrase which is still plausible

An eggcorn is the alteration of a phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements, creating a new phrase having a different meaning from the original but which still makes sense and is plausible when used in the same context. Eggcorns often arise as people attempt to make sense of a stock phrase that uses a term unfamiliar to them, as for example replacing "Alzheimer's disease" with "old-timers' disease", or Shakespeare's "to the manner born" with "to the manor born".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Forlorn hope</span> Military trope

A forlorn hope is a band of soldiers or other combatants chosen to take the vanguard in a military operation, such as a suicidal assault through the kill zone of a defended position, or the first men to climb a scaling ladder against a defended fortification, or a rearguard, to be expended to save a retreating army, where the risk of casualties is high. Such men were volunteers motivated by the promise of reward or promotion, or men under punishment offered pardon for their offenses, if they survived.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brass monkey (colloquialism)</span> Colloquial expression for cold weather

"Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey" is a colloquial expression used by some English speakers to describe extremely cold weather.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Running the gauntlet</span> Form of physical punishment

To run the gauntlet means to take part in a form of corporal punishment in which the party judged guilty is forced to run between two rows of soldiers, who strike out and attack them with sticks or other weapons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Irreversible binomial</span> A fixed phrase of two or more joined words

In linguistics and stylistics, an irreversible binomial, frozen binomial, binomial freeze, binomial expression, binomial pair, or nonreversible word pair is a pair or group of words used together in fixed order as an idiomatic expression or collocation. The words have some semantic relationship and are usually connected by the words and or or. They also belong to the same part of speech: nouns, adjectives, or verbs. The order of word elements cannot be reversed.

In grammar, a noun adjunct, attributive noun, qualifying noun, noun (pre)modifier, or apposite noun is an optional noun that modifies another noun; functioning similarly to an adjective, it is, more specifically, a noun functioning as a pre-modifier in a noun phrase. For example, in the phrase "chicken soup" the noun adjunct "chicken" modifies the noun "soup". It is irrelevant whether the resulting compound noun is spelled in one or two parts. "Field" is a noun adjunct in both "field player" and "fieldhouse".

"Hold your horses", sometimes said as "Hold the horses", is an English-language idiom meaning "wait, slow down". The phrase is historically related to horse riding or travelling by horse, or driving a horse-drawn vehicle. A number of explanations, all unverified, have been offered for the origins of the phrase, dating back to usage in Ancient Greece.

In the United States, trademark law includes a fair use defense, sometimes called "trademark fair use" to distinguish it from the better-known fair use doctrine in copyright. Fair use of trademarks is more limited than that which exists in the context of copyright.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rearguard</span> Military unit or personnel that protects the rear of the main force

A rearguard or rear security is a part of a military force that protects it from attack from the rear, either during an advance or withdrawal. The term can also be used to describe forces protecting lines, such as communication lines, behind an army. Even more generally, a rearguard action may refer idiomatically to an attempt at preventing something though it is likely too late to be prevented; this idiomatic meaning may apply in either a military or non-military context.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Depth sounding</span> Measuring the depths of a body of water

Depth sounding, often simply called sounding, is measuring the depth of a body of water. Data taken from soundings are used in bathymetry to make maps of the floor of a body of water, such as the seabed topography.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shut up</span> Direct command with a meaning similar to "be quiet"

"Shut up" is a direct command with a meaning very similar to "be quiet", but which is commonly perceived as a more forceful command to stop making noise or otherwise communicating, such as talking. The phrase is probably a shortened form of "shut up your mouth" or "shut your mouth up". Its use is generally considered rude and impolite, and may also be considered a form of profanity by some.

References

  1. RAILTON, John (October 5, 1738). "The Army Regulator; Or, the Military Adventures of Mr John Railton; Giving an Account of His Particular Services in the Horse Grenadiers, the Dragoons, the Foot, and the Train of Artillery". W. Warner via Google Books.
  2. Pickering, Timothy (October 5, 1775). An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia. Samuel and Ebenezer Hall. ISBN   9780608406763 via Google Books.
  3. "The British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review". F. and C. Rivington. October 5, 1831 via Google Books.
  4. "From Captain Maryatt's "Poor Jack". Old Duty (1841)". The Pittsfield Sun. August 26, 1841. p. 1. Retrieved February 24, 2021.
  5. "Nautical Terms and Phrases... Their Meaning and Origin". Archived from the original on July 3, 1998. Retrieved January 30, 2017.
  6. "Fragments of Voyages and Travels" (reprinted from the London Literary Gazette and written by Captain Basil Hall RN), /The Atheneum - Fourth Series, Volume 1 - April to October 1831, Kane & Co, Boston, page 188
  7. "The Christian Observer". Hatchard and Company. October 5, 1843 via Google Books.
  8. Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters, How Parliament Works, 6th ed (Longman, 2006), p. 14 and Robert Rogers, Order! Order!: A Parliamentary Miscellany (London: JR Books, 2009), p. 27
  9. "State of public affairs in December", The Monthly magazine, Number 277 Volume 40, R Phillips, January 1, 1816, page 548
  10. The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan, 1813, by "Hector Bull-Us" - known to his family and friends as James Paulding
  11. Cogitations; Henry James Finn, Moses Whitney, James William Miller, Oliver C. Wyman; Whimswhams, A K Newman and Co, London, page 155
  12. "Fight between Nick Ward and Deaf Burke for £50 a side", Editor of Bell's Life in London, Fights for the Championship and other Celebrated Prize Fights, Bell's Life, London, 1855, page 155
  13. Waigl, Chris. "toe » tow". The Eggcorn Database. Retrieved April 28, 2018.
  14. Quinion, Michael. "Toe the line". World Wide Words. Retrieved April 28, 2018.
  15. Congress - March 18, 1826, Niles' Weekly Register , H Niles, March to September 1826 Volume VI - Third Series, Baltimore, page 48
  16. Stracher, Cameron (2013). Kings of the Road. ISBN   9780547773964 via Book Depository.
  17. Max, Kevin (March 1, 2013). "Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project". 1859. Archived from the original on June 7, 2013.
  18. "Lance Armstrong on Twitter".
  19. A Parallel of Words, Dr Anthony Lightfoot. Authorhouse, 2010, page 457, ISBN   978 1 4520 3779 0
  20. Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, 1946