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Posted by ESC on May 25, 2000

In Reply to: "What's My Line" posted by James Briggs on May 25, 2000

: : : : Yes, the game was a 50's TV show entitled "What's My Line?
: : : : On that long-lived program, the panelists tried to determine the occupation of a guest. This often involved guessing at the nature of a product with which the guests might be identified and, to that end, finding out the size of the product. The commonest question along this interrogative route, heard so often that it became a running gag, was "Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

: : : Apropos of nothing in particular, apart from a bit of nostalgia. There was a version of the show on British radio too. The most memorable occupation, which didn't get guessed, was Sagger-makers Bottom Knocker. This was a real job involving cleaning out debris from saggers - which are the cases used to protect pottery when it is fired in a kiln.

: : : Gary

: : I remember that show. When I was VERY very young. Back to "breadbasket." He was probably thinking of the phrase "hit him in the breadbasket," meaning hit him in the abdomen.

: But why do we describe someone's job as a "line?"

: Here's my guess:
: I can find no good reference to the background, especially when one thinks that the saying is sometimes in the form of "what's your line of country?". However there seem to be at least two possibilities that personally occur to me, but without any documentary evidence to back them up. One puts the basis in the theatre where actors had their own lines to read; by extension this related to occupations. More possible is the theory that the line was the specific one on which the business details were entered on Victorian business cards; one can imagine the printer saying to a customer "what's your business line?"

I thought it would mean "line of merchandise" and salesmen would ask each other, "What's your line?" But from the following, it sounds like they were asking, what's your sales pitch or spiel?

"Spiel (German 'spielen,' to play a musical instrument) has meant a sales talk, line, or any colorful noisy speech, be it of a barker, huckster, or preacher, since the 1880s and used in advertising since the's line, line of talk, line of gab, line of bull, all of these line terms being in use since the early 1900s and very popular since the 1920s." "I Hear America Talking" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Voan Nostrand Co., New York, 1976).