Toe the Line. UK vs US offered origins

Posted by James Briggs on January 05, 2002 at

In Reply to: Tow vs. Toe the Line posted by Jim on January 04, 2002

: : : : Unofficially, but in my strong opinion, it's only a sign of ignorance. "Toe the line" means to place your feet as prescribed. To tow a line would mean to drag it and doesn't call up any relevant image.

: : : Ignorance. But don't underestimate the power of ignorance. Some fine phrases have been created that way. Not that I can think of any right now. I do recall one phrase mangled by a friend. The phrase was "I don't know him from Adam's off ox." She said, "I don't know him from Madam Allfox." That has a nice ring to it.

: : : For more dicussion, search under "toe" in the archives.

: : After further thinking (sometimes I do that) I can see
: : your it's spoken form, "tow the line"
: : to many likely makes more "written sense" than
: : "toe the line", which to many would make no sense.
: : The fact that they both sound the same when spoken
: : would contribute to the confusion...and the assumption.
: : Thus the occurance of tow would increase over time,
: : and thus provide positive feedback to more and more
: : people that it is 'tow' and not 'toe'. In the instances
: : I have seen this phrase recently, it appears about as often
: : in one form as the other. I would wager though, that
: : if you looked at where the two occurances are found
: : one may find 'tow' in, shall I say, "colloquial" places
: : like web sites, general distribution brochures, ads, newspapers,etc.,
: : while 'toe' would be more dominant in "literary" publications
: : like textbooks, novels...or in forums like this ;-)
: : If this is the cause of the growing "dichotomy", we
: : may find 'toe' gradually giving way to 'tow' in popular usage.
: : Time will tell I guess! Isn't language wonderful!
: : like

: Another variation. "I don't know him from Adam's Apple" meaning, very unfamiliar. Simple word play in the vein of but antonymic to knowing "like the back of my hand"

If you are asked toe the line the you are expected to conform to the rules of the situation. In one suggested origin the Line actually exists and is found in the House of Commons. It was put there to mark the sword distance between Government and Opposition front benches. Members were told to toe the line if, in the eyes of the Speaker, they became too excited.
A less romantic possible basis is found in athletics where the runners in a race line up with their toes on the line.

The US navy has a completely different origin. From their web site comes:
The space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with a packing material called "oakum" and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from afar, was a series of parallel lines a half-foot or so apart, running the length of the deck.
Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a warship's crew was ordered to fall in at quarters -- that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. To insure a neat alignment of each row, the Sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam.
Another use for these seams was punitive. The youngsters in a ship, be they ship's boys or student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time. Hopefully, he would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment.
From these two uses of deck seams comes our cautionary word to obstreperous youngsters to "toe the line."