The Line is for the Toe

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The Washington Times recently printed an editorial about H1N1 flu calling the disease “tow-the-line flu”. The use of the phrase “tow the line” is a common mistake; what the paper should have written was “toe the line”. To “toe the line” means to conform to some rule or standard, to fall into line. Politicians, for example, often have to toe their party lines.

People may imagine that the spelling “tow the line” is correct as it perhaps derives from some nautical activity. Ropes are often called lines aboard ship and a tow-line is just a line used to tow something on the water. But the phrase is probably nothing to do with ropes. In fact, the exact source is unclear but the phrase is generally taken to derive from the idea of lining up for a sporting activity, i.e. to place your toe on the line for the start of a race. By doing so you are following the rules set out for the activity.

There are other theories as to the origins of the phrase. It may derive from boxing, with early prize-fighters having to stand with one foot on a scratched line on the ground to fight. Others have claimed that it derives from the British House of Commons, where lines are marked on the ground to prevent more adversarial debates from getting out of hand.

Whatever the true origin of the phrase, the spelling should be “toe” and not “tow”.

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8 thoughts on “The Line is for the Toe”

  1. Another origin I’ve heard is relating to the parade ground – (new?) recruits being made to stand with their toe to the chalk line, i.e. conforming uniformly.

    In some instances the chalk line is the line of a plank on the deck, which sailors would have to stand behind.

  2. I would guess that it might have a military origin, too. In basic training, our drill sergeant would yell, “toe the line,” and we would have to line up in our barracks on the outside of a rectangle for inspection, admonishment or some other punishment. Also, in the military, if someone tells you to “toe the line,” it means to get with the program, i.e. stop following your own agenda.

  3. That a journalist in a major-market newspaper wrote “tow the line,” and that none of the line editors nor the copy desk caught the mistake is a sad — and telling — commentary on the sorry decline of the newpaper industry.

  4. My first thought was that the phrase originated on canals, where horses or mules towed a boat attached by a line (rope). But I like the other explanations, too. It’s fun that there are so many possibilities. Did anyone think to ask the newspaper why they chose that spelling?

  5. This reminds me of “a long row to hoe,” which is commonly said to be “a long road to hoe.” The latter makes no sense but somehow became misused with such great frequency that I’d doubt most people would know it’s wrong.

  6. A long rode to ho. It is not mispronounced it is misspelld.
    Rode is a length of chain and rope that is put out from the ship to the anchor. A long rode is required when it is windy or stormy. To pull a rope on a ship is to ho. Hence the term “Heave Ho” the group will advance on the rope on the command Heave and pull on the command Ho. If it is stormy and or windy the long rode to ho is hard work.

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