"toeing the line" revisited

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Sun Mar 27 08:32:54 UTC 2005

> We've established, at least to my satisfaction, that "towing the line"
> is an eggcorn.  Can anyone confirm or disconfirm the observation in the
> commentary track to "The Gathering Storm" DVD (the 2002 HBO production
> with Albert Finney as Churchill and Vanessa Redgrave as Clemmie--quite
> good, I thought) that "toeing the line" originates (not from athletic
> endeavors but) from the red line painted on the floor of the House of
> Commons, traditionally two rapier-widths thick, that separates the
> party in power from the minority party, to prevent bloodshed on the
> floor?  Sounds like it could be plausible, and also like it could be an
> etymythology, and I have no way of knowing which.

This is often claimed, not least by the guides who take visitors
around the Houses of Parliament (enough in itself, from experience,
to make one query the expression). So far as I'm aware, there's no
evidence supporting their belief. The point about the lines was that
honorable members were not supposed to cross them. There's nothing in
that rule that would very obviously lead to "toeing the line".

The early evidence surely points to athletics and pugilism, possibly
derived from sailors required to toe the line when mustering, the
lines being the joints in the deck planks. Other forms of the early
nineteenth century were "toe the mark", "toe the scratch" (definitely
from prize fighting), "toe the crack" and "toe the trig" (trig being
an old term for a boundary or centre line in various sports).

Michael Quinion
Editor, World Wide Words
E-mail: <wordseditor at worldwidewords.org>
Web: <http://www.worldwidewords.org/>

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